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Push off. Legs spread. Release. Push off. Legs spread. Release
Shane leaned against the wall with his arms folded across his chest and studied the woman, his brow creased in concentration.
He ignored the activity going on around him and throughout the gym, his attention focused solely on the small figure several feet away, making her way down the faux-stone-covered wall.
One small, black-gloved hand was wrapped securely around the rope just above her at chest level; the other was loosely wrapped around the part of the rope near her backside as she made her way down the wall.
And what a backside it was.
Shane found himself staring at her curvaceous little body in fascination as she rappelled the wall. His gaze shifted away from her round, firm buttocksthat even the shapeless khaki shorts she wore didn't disguiseto trail down her bare, dark brown legs.
Shane shook his head, berating himself for noticing her legs, sexy or not.
Although it had been too damn long since he'd been with a woman, this one was definitely off-limits.
This was the woman who'd managed to wrap his base manager around her finger and somehow convince him to allow her to do an "in-depth" story on him and his fellow smoke jumpers.
He tore his gaze away from the petite woman and glanced around at the crowded gym.
Although it was P.T., the time of morning when his men, if not on mission, performed physical training, apparently the base manager wasn't the only one taken with the reporter, Shane noticed, his scowl deepening. Several of his men were hanging around the rappelling wall, watching the reporter, nudging each other and pointing at her like schoolboys checking out a cute girl.
He pointedly stared and made eye contact with several of them, but his scowl didn't seem to scare them off. If anything, it seemed to encourage them. One of his men gave him a thumbs-up, jerking his head toward the woman, grinning his fool head off, as if Shane had something to do with her being there. Not even close, Shane thought, his irritation growing. And if he had his way she'd be packing up as soon as her curvy little body hit the ground.
He'd recently returned from a mission where he'd volunteered to help the short-staffed Alaska unit with a kicker that had blazed for twelve days before they'd gotten the fire under control. Afterward, he'd stayed on and helped with the massive cleanup.
Pleased with how it had gone, but beyond exhausted, a month later he was just looking forward to a little R and R. Preferably in the form of staying in bed for forty-eight hours with one of the always-ready, always-willing, long-legged blondes from the local town of Landers.
When Roebuck, his base manager, had first informed him on his way back home that he was allowing a reporter to come into the jumpers' camp to research an in-depth article on their lives, one that would possibly hit the national papers, Shane had been less than enthusiastic.
After the series of fires taking place over the last eighteen months across the coast, their small, sleepy community had been a hive of activity, gaining national exposure and bringing in a lot of media attention.
In particular there was the fire that had occurred near the start of the spree that resulted in two jumpers dying and the only female jumper on staff leaving. There'd been plenty of speculation as to why she'd left, but no one besides Roebuck, Shane and a few of the senior jumpers knew the real reason.
When Roebuck had explained his reasoning for allowing the reporter access, eager for a chance to show what he and the men did on a daily basis, a reluctant part of Shane had understood. The attention the article would bring, would give good press to their small base, and with it, much-needed donations to keep the satellite office up and running.
That was until he'd found out that Gene Raw was in fact Emogene Rawlings; that the reporter used the shortened version of her name on her byline.
His eyes narrowed as he watched her"Emma" in personcarefully, but swiftly make her way down the wall, pushing away the spark of admiration he felt for her ability.
From his vantage point, he had an optimal view of her. He found his attention riveted on her small nuancesthe way her brow furrowed as she scaled the wall, the way the full bottom rim of her lip was pulled between her top teeth, the small bead of sweat that rolled down past her temple, over her cheekbone and down the curve her of her cheek.
She quickly maneuvered her way down the rest of the wall. Once she made it to the floor, she spun around jubilantly and gave several of the nearby men high-fives.
"She's amazing, huh, Shane? I've never seen a first-timer go down the wall so fast!"
Shane turned to one of the jumpers who'd come to stand next to him. He nodded his head curtly and glanced around. He'd unconsciously moved closer as he watched her and was now standing a few short feet away from the rappelling wall.
"Yeah, she's a regular marvel." As soon as he made the snide remark, Shane wished he could retract it. The younger jumper frowned, a puzzled look on his face.
"Do you know her, Shane?"
Shane shook his head and turned to watch the reporter with narrowed eyes.
"I guess you gotta wonder about a woman like that," the man went on, oblivious to Shane's irritation.
"What do you mean?" Shane asked.
The jumper shrugged his broad shoulders. "I don't know. She's so small, looks kinda fragile to me. Wouldn't think a woman like that would be in her line of work. I guess I figured when they told us a reporter was gonna be following us around, living at the camp, I didn't figure it'd be a woman. Damn sure not one as fine as Ms. Rawlings."
When Shane raised a brow, the younger man blushed. "Well, you know what I mean," he murmured.
When the woman in question turned toward them, as though she knew they were talking about her, she and Shane locked glances. From his short distance away he saw her large brown eyes widen as he deliberately allowed his gaze to leisurely slide over her, from the top of her head down to her small, boot-covered feet.
When his eyes met hers again, he noticed the subtle once-over she gave him as well before her eyes darted away. But not before he saw the flush of red on her deep brown skin.
He was the sexiest jumper she'd ever seen.
Although, truth be told, Emma had only been at the hub station for a short time and had never actually met a smoke jumper in person before her arrival. But, no doubt about it, this one was at the top of the food chain.
The jumpers gave new meaning to the term "alpha male," from the base manager all the way down to the new recruits. It was a prerequisite for the men in their line of work to be in top physical and mental condition, always ready to go into action when the call came.
For all that, there was still something more about this one; something indefinable. A hint of danger and a sharper edge surrounded him, clung to him, made him that much more.prime.
He was the kind of man who, if placed in a room with ten other men looking for a fight, would be able to take each of them down, one by one.
The minute he'd walked into the packed gym the back of her neck had prickled in awareness and she'd turned around in search of the cause. As she stood braced at the top of the rappelling wall, preparing to go down, she'd paused and watched him as he casually spoke to the others. When he had turned to face her, as though aware of her regard, she'd quickly looked away before he'd caught her gawking at him. Giving the jumper who was assisting her an absent smile, Emma focused her attention on the task at hand.
The jumpers, at first cool toward her, had slowly warmed up and had begun to take her seriously. She didn't want to erase the progress she had begun to establish by being caught eyeballing one of the men as if she were a starving woman and he a big, juicy steak.
She had been expecting that she would have to work harder to gain the respect of some of the men, coming in as an outsider and the only female in their close-knit brotherhood. She knew it would take more than the few days she'd been there, yet she'd been both surprised and pleased with the welcome they'd given her, so far.
Today was the first day they'd invited her to join them for physical training. She'd brought along her backpack that held her camera and mini-recorder, but she hadn't pulled either out.
A natural athlete, she'd been thrilled when one of the squad leaders invited her to give the rappelling wall a try, a training they used to prepare themselves for their live missions.
Emma had scaled down some of the most intimidating mountains in the Himalayas while following a mountaineering guide from Nepal while writing a story on the Sherpas. So when one of the smoke jumpers invited her to try rappelling, she'd been more than confident in her skills.
She eyed the jumper who scaled the wall alongside her. Concentrating on the climb, she put thoughts of the newcomer from her mind and made short work of the twenty-foot wall. She made it to the linoleum floor, spun around and grinned widely when she finished minutes before the other climber did.
Several of the men surrounded her, clapping her good-naturedly on the back. Her smile faltered when she again felt that odd prickling awareness slide along her skin. Glancing over her shoulder, her gaze collided with histhe jumper who'd entered the gym before she'd begun her descent.
He now stood just a few feet away, staring at her with an intensity that was unnerving. His light blue eyes were fixed on her, a deep frown on his face, pulling his thick, dark eyebrows together until they formed a straight line as he continued to stare at her assessing her.
When she'd seen him enter the gym, she could tell he was tall, but now as he stood next to one of the other jumpers she could see that he towered over the other men. Dressed in a variation on what looked to be the standard uniform the others wore for physical training, on him it looked completely different. It was more earthy.more masculine.
He wore the standard-issue gray T-shirt that hugged his broad chest and wide shoulders and a pair of loose-fitting matching gray gym shorts that cupped his lean hips.
His dark hair was cut short, almost military short, save for the slightly longer length on top. Although he currently wore a deep scowl on his face, his wide mouth was sensual and inviting. He casually wore an aura of command that set him apart from the others.
Like a lightbulb going on, it suddenly dawned on Emma who he was. Shane Westwood. He was the second in charge, after the base manager, the one she'd heard so much about from the others. According to the men, he was the golden boy, the man who could fight fires single-handedly.a regular superman.
She'd also learned from one of the rookies that he was staunchly against any female smoke jumpers gaining membership into the small substation. When she asked why, the man had shrugged his shoulders, claiming not to know the answer.
But she knew there had to be a story behind it despite claims to the contrary. Her instincts practically screamed at her, telling her so. And Emma never ignored her instincts. But she let it drop, choosing not to alienate her new informant by digging for more information he wasn't ready to give.
When her eyes met his again, the look in them made her draw back physically. His animosity seemed to reach out and grab her, so vibrant it was almost as if it were a living thing. The effect was as though someone had punched her right in the stomach.
Emma forced her body to stay erect, forced herself not to take a step back, so sudden and unexpected was both the look and the effect it had on her. For whatever reason, he didn't want her there. Okay. Fine. She could deal with that.
What she didn't want to examine, much less deal with, was her body's reaction to him. The waydespite the obvious dislike he had for her, whatever the reason was behind itthe sizzle of awareness between them made her tremble slightly. She'd never had that happen with anyone else, much less someone who seemed to have such an irrational sense of disdain for her.
Whatever his issue, Emma had no intention of allowing him to try and get rid of her. She had come for one purpose, and one onlyto write the best damn article she could, one she hoped would go to national syndication and take her career to the next level.
He was the senior smoke jumper at the station, and after the base manager, he was the one in charge. He had a lot of pull. His influence, if he chose to protest her presence, would make her job difficult.
Too much was on the line to allow some guy with a serious attitudeno matter how fine he wasto mess it up for her. She casually looked over her shoulder. A shiver ran over her arms as their glances collided again.
That might not be such an easy task.