Fourth in M.L. Buchman's critically acclaimed Firehawks romantic suspense series
The elite firefighters of Mount Hood Aviation fly into places even the CIA can't penetrate.
FROM WILDFIRE TO GUNFIRE
When former Army National Guard helicopter pilot Robin Harrow joins Mount Hood Aviation, she expect to fight fires for only one season. Instead, she finds herself getting deeply entrenched with one of the most elite firefighting teams in the world. And that's before they send her on a mission that's seriously top secret, with a flight partner who's seriously hot.
Mickey Hamilton loves flying, firefighting, and women, in that order. But when Robin Harrow roars across his radar, his priorities go out the window. On a critical mission deep in enemy territory, their past burns away and they must face each other. Their one shot at a future demands that they first survive the present-together.
"A richly detailed and pulse-pounding read...tender romance flawlessly blended with heart-stopping life-or-death scenes." -RT Book Reviews, 4 ½ stars for Full Blaze
About the Author
In among his career as a corporate project manager he has: rebuilt and single-handed a fifty-foot sailboat, both flown and jumped out of airplanes, designed and built two houses, and bicycled solo around the world.
He is now a full-time writer, living on the Oregon Coast with his beloved wife. He is constantly amazed at what you can do with a degree in Geophysics. You may keep up with his writing at www.mlbuchman.com.
Read an Excerpt
An alarm shattered the predawn silence. Not some squeaky little beeper. Not Macho Man in the Morning on the radio. And, thank all the gods there ever were, not the bloodcurdling "incoming enemy fire" siren that Robin Harrow had heard a lifetime's worth of during her six years of Arizona Army National Guard service-both in practice and during a pair of six-month deployments the AANG had rocked in Afghanistan.
But it was just as strident.
She lay in her bunk a moment longer, as grunts rolled out of their own racks up and down the barracks hall, feet thudding to the floor, moans and groans sounding through the thin plywood walls. With no drill sergeant to move them along, there was more shuffle than hustle, but they were moving.
Robin had been awake and glaring at the blank darkness of the bunkhouse's low plywood ceiling for hours, only now coming visible in the first light through the thin curtains. Awake and ready to go. Day One on the job, also Day One of the fire season. She'd lain there wondering just what she'd signed up for and how long it would take for the action to start. Part two had just been answered-not very long.
Bring it, people.
In the interview for Mount Hood Aviation, they'd promised her that when it hit, she'd be scrambling. She was absolutely down with that, no matter how little she actually believed them.
After the worst of the clatter in the neighboring dormitory rooms had settled, Robin dropped out of her bunk. She'd used her dad's firefighter trick-at least her mom was pretty sure her dad had been a firefighter, so she'd watched a lot of firefighter movies and learned what she could. Her flight suit was pre-slipped with fire-retardant cotton long johns and the legs of her flight suit in turn were already in her unlaced boots. In thirty seconds flat, she went from sleeping bare on top of the covers to lacing her boots.
She'd spotted the job opening for a temp one-season piloting job and, needing to get out of her post-service life in the worst way, answered the ad. Her time in the Guard had included certifying for heli-bucket brigade on out-of-control wildfires. It was a damn sight better than her gig in her mother's truck stop restaurant playing the "Hi! I'm Robin!" perky waitress. She'd had way more than enough of that as a kid and teen.
Phoebe's Tucson Truck Stop-founded by and named for Grandma Phoebe Harrow-was one of the last big independents on the routes. A massive complex that sat on the I-10 just south of Tucson. They could fuel over a dozen rigs at a time and park hundreds. Truck wash and basic service, certified CAT scales, motel if you wanted a night out of your rig, barbershop, and-the bane of her existence-Mom's Grill.
Peddling herself as a waitress was part of the gig, or at least pretending to: tight-and too goddamn short-outfit to reveal her soldier-fit body, her light-blond hair kept short with that chopped look that men thought was so cute-and she liked for its low maintenance. She really did do it herself with a pair of scissors.
Robin double-checked her Nomex pants and her leather Army boots, now that's what a girl should wear, not some damned hot-pink mini-skort. She pulled on a white cotton tee-screw the bra, she'd never liked the damn things anyway, and on a Harrow woman, they weren't mandatory. Nomex jacket in one hand, personal gear bag over her shoulder, and she was good to go. Nobody was going to mess with Robin the firefighter pilot.
She headed out into the hall of the now-silent dormitory. Not a soul in sight. She put on some hustle down the dark and narrow hallway. But she'd gone the wrong way and hit a dead end. Turning back, she went looking for a way out of this place. The corridors weren't long, but it was a maze worse than dodging the truckers with straying hands.
Despite Robin's constant battles at the truck stop, the tips had been really good; Grandma Phoebe's pointers on how to work money out of the late-night guys' soused brains-and their deeply overinflated illusions of what was never going to happen-paid well, but...GAG!
Much to her surprise, when she told Mama and Grandma about the ad for a seasonal firefighting job, they'd shuffled her ass out the door and over to the airport so fast it had left her head spinning. Robin had always assumed she'd eventually settle into the traces to become the third Harrow woman to run Phoebe's Tucson Truck Stop, but maybe not. At least not this season.
Robin zagged the other direction through the MHA camp's labyrinthine barracks after hitting a second dead-end corridor. The building was far bigger than it looked from the outside. Actually, it simply had more cramped into it than should be possible. She spotted a few guys coming out of a door, holding their toothbrushes. But when she arrived, she didn't see any women's bathroom close beside it.
Robin gave up on finding the women's bathroom and walked into the men's. While she leaned over the cracked porcelain and brushed her teeth, the guys who were rushing by half-dressed gave her odd looks reflected in the sheet of scratched steel screwed to the battered wood wall as a mirror. In moments, she was the only one there, staring idly at the "Jimmy + Theresa" inside a heart and a thousand more inscriptions carved into the fir-plank wall with a penknife over the years.
Robin pocketed the toothbrush and rinsed her face. If this were the AANG, grunts would all be formed up on the line by now, but in the civilian world...the men would still be moving slow and the women were probably back in their rooms doing their hair. She stroked a damp hand through her short hair and she was done with that. Robin headed for the field.
Robin headed down the hall and banged out the doors, ready to leap at the fire...and was staring at the gravel parking lot. Not a soul here. The lot was crowded with dusty pickups that had seen better lives a long, long time ago, an impressive array of muscle cars-enough to make a good drag race-and several motorbikes-some hot and some not. But no people.
Damn it! She'd come out the wrong side of the building.
"How was the wedding?"
Mickey Hamilton was moving too slow to avoid Gordon's cheery punch on the arm. He'd pulled in late last night and he'd been more stumbling than functioning since the fire alarm had rousted him. He'd had enough hours of sleep, but he really needed some coffee.
"Morning, Gordon." Mickey rubbed at his eyes, but it didn't help. The first day of MHA's fire season, he should have been allowed to sleep in. But no-o. Sunrise hadn't even hit the horizon yet, though it was only minutes away, and the first call had come in. Most of the team were already at the base of the airfield's two-story control tower even though it was less than five minutes since the alarm. MHA tried to hit fifteen minutes from alarm to airborne and no one wanted to screw it up on the first day.
The rising sun was dazzling off the glaciered peak of Mount Hood that loomed to the west. The air smelled ice fresh and pine sharp on the June breeze-especially after spending four days back home in the Eastern Oregon, where the grass was already going dry and dusty. It was going to be a hell of a fire season.
He breathed in deep. Here the Doug fir and spruce that surrounded the camp rolled for dozens of miles in every direction, except up the face of the mountain that spilled glacier-cooled air down through the warm morning.
The grass strip runway split the ramshackle camp buildings behind them from the line of beautiful firefighting craft parked down the farside. Straight across stood Firehawk One. He could almost see a frown on its blunt nose because Emily wouldn't be aboard. But his own Bell 212 was three down the row and was just as eager to get going as he was.
"Smells like a good morning to go fight a fire."
"Avoiding the question, Mickey. Tell me, was the bride hot?"
"My sister, Gordon. Get a grip."
Vern, one of the Firehawk pilots, moseyed up looking about as awake as Mickey felt.
"Hey, Mickey. So, was the bride hot?"
Mickey sighed. "Yeah, she was..." And he left the guys hanging for several very long seconds. "But not as hot as the number-two bridesmaid."
"Yes!" Gordon pumped a fist. "Details, Mickey. We want details."
Mickey scanned the crowd gathering. MHA's pilots, smokejumpers, and support personal were all hustling up. The team's leaders, Mark and a spectacularly pregnant Emily, and Carly, their genius fire behavior analyst, were all conferring on the platform landing one story up the control tower stairs. But they didn't look ready to announce anything, so he turned back to his audience, which now included Steve, the drone pilot, and Cal, the photographer.
"Suzanna Rose. Went to high school together, but we never hooked up. Saw her at rehearsal dinner and let's just say I saw a whole lot of her after that."
"It's those blue eyes of yours."
"Nah, it's because he looks like an ex-Marine."
"Which I'm not." Mickey had started flying helicopters before he started driving cars. Actually, he'd flown his first helicopter on his tenth birthday and never looked back. It had been a ten-inch-long, radio-controlled wonder with red-white-and-blue racing stripes that he'd crashed and rebuilt a hundred times. It still ruled a place of honor on his dresser at his parents' house in Bend, Oregon. He'd been fifteen before his first real bird. Had been with MHA for eight years since graduation, all of it flying to fight wildfires.
"Women don't care."
"It's because you're so pretty." Gordon tried to pat his cheeks until Mickey fisted him lightly in the gut.
"Let's just say it was an awesome wedding."
"Seeing her again?" Vern, the cowboy-tall pilot from Washington State.
"Nah." Mickey tried to sound casual about it. A part of him-a past part-should have been pleased by how neatly it all worked out, but another part of him-one he didn't know well-was disappointed. "She's leaving for a job in Europe next week. Be gone at least a year."
"Perfect!" was Gordon's response, but Vern looked a little sad for him, only reinforcing the feeling of disappointment that Mickey didn't understand.
Of course Vern was biased. He'd gone and fallen in love with the gorgeous and diminutive MHA chief mechanic over the winter. Oddest-looking couple, but it was working for them which was...good? There'd been a whole lot of weddings lately among the MHA top staff and it was...odd. He sighed but kept it to himself. Mickey missed the rest of the guys when he'd hit a bar and pick up some hot chick with the standard, "I fly helicopters to fight wildfires."
"Oh, hey. You gotta see the new pilot. Emily's replacement. She's amazing!" Gordon, however, Mickey could still count on.
He glanced up at the pregnant Emily up on the landing. It was still wrong that she was grounded.
So she'd finally found a replacement? Flying without Emily Beale in the lead this season was going to be like having one of your arms amputated and no one telling you. You just kept reaching out and getting nothing but air. Of course, one look at her huge belly as she stood there next to Mark up on the first-story landing of the tower, and he wondered how she'd even fit in the pilot's seat for the candidate-interview flights.
They'd gone on for weeks. Hopefuls-all guys-showing up, sometimes several a day, trooping into the Oregon wilderness and driving up to the high Mount Hood Aviation base camp. To substitute for Emily, someone was going to have to be seriously good. She was the best heli-pilot Mickey had seen in a decade of flying and eight years on fires.
In between refresher flights up and down the slopes of Mount Hood, Mickey and the others had taken to hanging out at the wooden picnic tables in front of the mess hall, sipping cold sodas, and watching the slaughter.
Mickey could see the failures almost as fast as Beale had them back out of the sky. Military-quality control but no feel for a fire-not even the flaming steel drums set up midfield. Weekend aviation jocks who thought that flying fire was just about taking the certification course-MHA wasn't a place heli-aviation firefighters started, it was where they strove to end up. Top fliers from other outfits slipped into camp quietly so their current bosses wouldn't know, then slipped out just as quietly when Emily booted their butts for not being up to MHA standards.
And then she'd hired a female pilot. If it was anyone else than Emily Beale, you could claim gender bias, but not her. Emily only cared about finding the very best. She set an amazing standard.
"So..." Mickey turned back to the other guys as Betsy the cook worked her way through the crowd with a stack of Styrofoam and a pitcher of coffee.
Everything stopped while they all loaded up, then reconvened gripping cups of Betsy's best brew.
"So, what's the new recruit like other than hot?"
Robin stood at the back door of the MHA barracks and stared up at the trees. She'd arrived four days ago at this funky, little camp lost in the foothills of Mount Hood, Oregon, for an interview and still couldn't believe it every time she saw the forest.
It had been six months since she'd flown, and that had been her last day in the Arizona Army National Guard. The army heliport in Marana just north of Tucson, where she'd spent most of her six years in the AANG, was three hundred acres of baking tarmac covered with long, neatly parked rows of Blackhawks and Apaches, surrounded by tens of thousands of acres of baking desert.
Mount Hood Aviation was a tiny grass strip perched at five thousand feet on the side of an eleven-thousand-foot-tall dormant volcano. A runway stuck in the middle of trees that soared a hundred feet or more high. Spruce, Douglas fir, maples, and alder. Beneath them lay a thick mat of blackberry, salal, and a hundred other scrub varieties that she didn't recognize. And moss frickin' everywhere: dripping from tree branches, mixed into the grass, clinging to the north sides of buildings and roofs. The lush biomass was so dense that it was impossible to take in, but she could taste it in the air, thick enough with oxygen that it felt like she was in an emergency ward and they were pumping it directly into this Arizona gal.
Robin had grown up in Tucson, served twenty miles away in Marana and ten kajillion away in Afghanistan-all places where oxygen was served in reasonable helpings rather than Oregonian truck stopsized portions. She'd never been much of traveler, so Oregon was about as familiar as the moon.
The MHA base camp was the run-down remains of a Boy Scout camp along one side of the grass runway. Plywood barracks, dining hall, and a rec hall turned parachute-and-supplies loft, all of the wood gone gray with age-at least all that wasn't covered by the frickin' moss.
She decided that going back through the dim maze of the barracks would be ill-advised. Like Alice, she might slide down the rabbit hole and never be seen again. She began walking around the building.
On the far side of the runway that cut this place in two stood a line of the finest Firehawks she'd ever seen, which more than made up for the disaster of the camp. MHA was one of the only civilian outfits to run the converted Black Hawk helicopters that she'd spent six years flying for the military. That was a huge draw, almost as big as getting out of her waitress outfit.
Robin imagined taking that pretty Firehawk helicopter-painted with the Mount Hood Aviation trademark gloss black and brilliant red-and-orange flames like a hi-fuel dragster running out at the strip in Tucson on a hot summer night-and lifting it smoothly into the Oregon sky. The controls had been silky in Robin's hands during the interview and subsequent training flights. Though it ticked her off a little that the MHA firefighters had better-equipped Black Hawks than the ones she'd flown for the Arizona Army National Guard.
The AANG birds were always three steps behind. The Night Stalkers of Special Operations got the best, of course, then the Army and Navy got the good gear. The National Guard didn't always get the castoffs, but it felt like they did. The Army and Navy made sure you knew you were a second-class citizen-they were dumb enough to think they were both first when actually neither was. But as a Guarder, she'd never met a Spec Ops dude anyway, so they didn't affect her reality.
Now she was discovering that she'd been four steps behind. This measly little civilian outfit fielded three Firehawks with fully electronic glass-screen cockpits. A lot of the Army and Navy birds were still mechanical dial and gauge, like all of the AANG craft. The high tech had taken some getting used to during her training flights, though all in a good way. Of course she'd now been totally spoiled.
Mount Hood Aviation also had two little MD500s and a pair of midsized Bell 212 Hueys-called Twin 212s for their dual engines-all of which were immaculate and also sported the latest gear. All the aircraft looked unusually sleek and powerful in that black-and-flame paint job.
Robin stumbled to a halt halfway around the back of the parachute loft-she'd clearly chosen the long way around. A service truck sat there with a seriously massive lock, and attached to the hitch was a trailer. The trailer was an odd one and so out of context that it took her a moment to recognize. It belonged to a ScanEagle drone. She'd seen them in Afghanistan. A small, five-foot-long surveillance bird with a ten-foot wingspan...that no civilian outfit should have.
Who the hell were these people and what had she gotten herself into?
It's not that she didn't appreciate the high-end gear. Didn't matter. Whatever the past, she had the best at her command now. Even if her new contract was only for a single fire season. So she'd stop complaining...soon.
Mount Hood Aviation had a one-season slot because their lead pilot was in her final trimester-for her second kid, like she was doing it on purpose-and would be grounded for the fire season itself. She probably shouldn't have even been flying the interview flights, but Robin guessed no one had dared to stop her. Emily Beale had been a total bitch in stretch-waist camos and a belly-hugging black T-shirt for Robin's interview flight, even if she was the size of an RV.
Robin dragged herself away from considering the launch trailer and continued around the service garage. Maybe she should have braved the barracks corridors. She hurried up her pace.
It wasn't that Emily Beale had been nasty, but rather that she'd been so damn good and corrected every tiny thing Robin did that wasn't up to her standards. Worse, she'd delivered every little tidbit as a simple correction. That left it to Robin to feel shitty for failing to meet the standards of a woman who could barely fit between the pilot's seat and the cyclic control joystick.
"You're starting your drop three seconds too early." They soared over a mind-boggling wilderness of trees so thick that the terrain was invisible beneath it.
Robin hated personal failure; she was a specialist in self-recrimination. Had thought about putting it on her résumé.
"If you hover two feet lower, you'll pick up another six percent efficiency on the belly tank loading pumps mounted on the snorkel." Over a mountain lake that must be twenty miles from the nearest road and just begged for her to go swimming in it.
She should have known that about the snorkel; it made perfect sense after Beale had dropped the fact quietly over the intercom. A quiet, sure voice in the roaring cockpit of the converted Black Hawk helicopter. Unlike her AANG birds with a big, orange bucket dangling unpredictably on a hundred feet of long-line, the MHA Black Hawks had been converted to Firehawks with big belly tanks that were bolted right onto the bottom of the helicopter's frame. It let her carry a thousand gallons of water, instead of the eight hundred that the bucket held, which was sweet.
The belly tank also meant she could get more up close and personal with the fire. Aiming a bucket on a long-line was like spreading your feet and trying to pee straight down into a shot glass-a good party trick in the girls' barracks during those really boring and occasionally drunken AANG weekends. The belly tank let her decide, "dump starts here, ends there," and hit it every time.
Even without the black T-shirt and camo pants, Ms. Queen Beale had that feel of ex-military that some air jocks never got over when they hit the civilian world. You're out, lady. Deal with it. Robin had taken enough officer shit on the inside and didn't need it out here.
Beale wasn't the only one who was all ex-military in this outfit. The lay of the MHA land was odd.
Mark, the boss man, was also ex-officer material. Handsome as hell but married to the pregnant queen bitch. Not Robin's type anyway; she liked her men still a little rough around the edges. The boss was totally AJ Squared Away. He also was always toting around their two-year-old daughter. Which was pretty damn cute-if you lived in a women's magazine world. Besides, he spent his workday circling at high elevations in his command plane as if that was really flying.
A guy who wasn't rotorcraft? Robin was definitely not interested.
Robin hadn't sorted out the helicopter pilots yet, but she would. There had to be some extracurricular recreation to this job or she'd go stir-crazy for sure just chasing after the occasional fire.
Finally, she cleared the last corner of the last building and stopped in surprise at the size of the crowd gathered around the base of the control tower. She'd seriously underestimated the size of this outfit. Forty people were gathered together, with Mark and Queen Bitch Beale perched up on the platform as if ready to deliver some military lecture.
Her two Afghan tours had been in her rookie and her third year of service in the Guard...then three more years of sitting on her butt before she bailed on them. The stand-down of forces in Iraq and Afghanistan had turned the National Guard into a whole lot of training weekends with the tuition turkeys-in it for the free school and just praying they never deployed-and the occasional call up for a fire, flood, or some other natural mess. And she wasn't really a regular Army sort of gal.
If she spent the next six to nine months sitting around on her butt, alone, between infrequent fire calls, she was going to die of boredom.
There was hope though. She'd take this morning's alert-a fire on her very first day-as a good sign.
She'd been lying there in the crappy base accommodations-no complaints from her; they were free, but they were still crappy-bored to shit in the dark. And then that sweet alarm that could have awakened Jesus it was so damn strident had rung through the base.
And the crowd was almost entirely male, which boded very well for summer entertainment.
She tried to ease up to the back of the crowd. She was last to arrive, which she hated.
She didn't get away with it.
Emily and Mark were both looking right at her.
All forty people were.
Some still half-dressed, others were lacing their boots, but they were all there and she was delaying the entire outfit on the first day. Whatever she'd thought of the Guard, she was always first to the flight line and first in the air; anything less than her best was a personal failure.
"Now that we're all here." Boss Man Mark Henderson spoke in a normal voice. He didn't have to do that; she already felt embarrassed.
Not being the best was the worst feeling on the planet in Robin's book and it sure as shit wasn't going to happen again.
Mickey had watched for the new pilot as they mustered but missed her arrival-on the far side of the crowd, all he could see was craned necks and a hint of sun-bright hair. She didn't come from the direction of the barracks, and he'd been too busy trying to pry some details out of the guys with no luck. All they'd added to "seriously hot" was "serious dose of attitude." Real helpful, guys.
TJ came down the stairs from the window-wrapped comm shack at the top of the tower with some fresh printouts for Mark. His heavy footsteps echoed over the sudden silence-he still had a limp from his last day of thirty years of smokejumping. As he handed off fresh data sheets to the others, the crowd of firefighters returned to chatting softly.
Barely past sunrise and the late spring day was already warm enough that people were shedding jackets. But the smokejumpers still kept the full suits on and zipped; the most gung-ho of the breed came to MHA. To pass the time and dissipate the tension, they were hazing each other about who was going to be eating a tree on their first live jump of the season.
Mickey had always loved his helicopters, but there were times, like now, listening to them before a big jump, that he thought about switching over. The idea never lasted long...battered by trees, torn knees, broken ribs; smokejumping was a rough life. And that was all before they started eating smoke and facing the fire up close and personal. Besides, all he'd ever dreamed of was flying. But it was fun to imagine every now and then.
"Five bucks Akbar eats the first tree," Krista, the number-two smokie, called out. Akbar, the lead smokie, was still paying for his first-ever MHA jump five years ago when he'd hung up in the very top of two hundred feet of Douglas fir. It had taken him an hour to lower himself down on a rope as he was constantly hanging up in the lower branches. Then he'd had to climb back up to top the tree so that he could recover his chute.
"Five bucks says you do," Akbar countered, but his voice was overwhelmed by another smokie collecting the bets for and against Akbar. Mickey kicked in a fiver for Akbar snagging a tree, knowing it was lost money. Akbar was a great jumper, but Mickey wanted him to feel the pain of the helo-jocks betting against him.
But just like Mickey, Akbar was keeping a weather eye on the four up on the platform as they conferred over the pages of new information and their faces shifted to grim. A big fire on the first day; it didn't bode well for the season. This early, it was probably California or Alaska-still too soon for Oregon or Washington to burn. At least he hoped so.
He glanced around at Jeannie and Vern. The pilots of Firehawk Two and Three had caught it as well. He'd lost track of the new pilot again. The newer pilots-Vanessa, Bruce, and Gordon-had missed the look of worry.
Mickey nudged Gordon in the ribs.
"What?" Gordon whispered.
He nodded up toward the four on the landing.
"Oh." Gordon was getting a clue. After three years, he was fine against a fire and one of Mickey's best buddies, but he wasn't the sharpest on reading situations on the ground. Gordon began double-checking his gear.
Mickey had already done that twice, so he resisted the urge to do so again. Instead, he looked around and finally spotted the new pilot again-back between a couple of smokejumpers, he could just see her face. She was watching the group on the landing intently. Sharp, she hadn't missed a thing.
As more and more noticed the leader's looks, everyone began pulling out energy bars they'd rat-holed away in their personal gear bags. Chances of having one of Betsy's generous sit-down breakfasts at the picnic tables this morning were fast approaching zero.
The newbie caught onto that quick enough. She too began stoking up for a flight.
When Mickey had left for a short vacation, the record stood at thirty-nine applicants, twelve test flights, and no hires. Mickey had been gone for four days and returned late last night to hear there was a new hire and she was already certified to be on the line. Bang! Just like that.
Even more strange, the new pilot was rumored to be the new flight lead. Everyone had expected Jeannie in Firehawk Two to pick up that role for the summer. At least Mickey sure had. He knew that he was a contender for the slot also, but Jeannie had a master's degree in fire management and Mickey just had an associate's degree in heli-aviation even if he had eight years of flying for MHA to Jeannie's four.
But there was no way to replace Emily. First, she was the best pilot. Second, also the best flight commander. Third, even though she was untouchable, she was an immense pleasure to look at. Even six months gone, she was a knockout. No question that Mark was one unreasonably lucky man because, damn, who knew pregnant could ever look good to a guy.
Mickey had never thought about getting serious with a girl, not really, until he'd first seen Mark and Emily together when they took over the outfit three seasons back. Joke was Emily Beale was still showing her mama bear spine of steel; Mark was the one who was so mushy around her it made you wonder if he was the one dosed with massive waves of pregnancy hormones rather than his wife.
Of course, thinking about getting serious with a girl versus actually doing it...well, that was something he'd do as soon as he found the right girl. Maybe.
He'd only been at his sister's wedding for four days but totally missed the new pilot's eval and training process. It had happened so fast. That had to be some amazing pilot to take the lead slot. He was sorry he'd missed the action; watching the candidates roll through camp had been amusing. Some of the candidates, especially the high-hour pilots, invariably male, would get really torqued when a beautiful, pregnant woman showed them the road home.
Of course Emily had never told them she was an Army Captain with the Night Stalkers Special Operations helicopter regiment. Or had she been Major? Emily and Mark rarely talked about their military backgrounds. It didn't matter. They were the two best pilots Mickey had ever flown with.
For more serious possibilities, Mickey had his eye on the lovely yet shy Vanessa, who flew one of MHA's little MD500s. But it never hurt a guy to look around.
A shift in the jostling smokies and Mickey got his first good look at the newcomer.
Her short plume of white-blond hair that shagged its way to her collar shone in the low-angle morning sunlight. She stood bone straight, which either meant ballerina or maybe workout instructor. She didn't look like any ballerina he'd ever seen on one of those TV shows Sis loved-Nutcracker every damn Christmas like religion. She might be long and lean, but she was no waiflike frail flower either. The pilot had shining, blue eyes and high cheekbones on an elegant face that went well with the choppy haircut.
She looked right at Mark, not shying off despite his reprimand for being late, which meant balls of steel. Metaphorically. Even though she had her flight jacket shrugged on and he couldn't see much of the figure beneath, there was no question of a hundred-percent babe.
"Told you she was hot shit!" Gordon leaned over to whisper in his ear.
"No ring or tan line on the finger." Mickey played along as she raised her energy bar to bite off another chunk.
"She doesn't walk like a married person."
Mickey Hamilton had missed her walk. He'd make sure to watch until she moved again.
He was tempted to ask Gordon how a married woman walked just to see what his friend came up with.
To pass the time, Akbar and the other smokies renewed their hot debate over which would eat a tree first. Their shifting positions exposed Vanessa standing beyond them, just a step away from the newbie.
A soft-spoken and dazzling brunette right out of an Italian travel magazine to one side.
To the other, a slender, blond Anne Heche look-alike from that movie on the island with Harrison Ford and a power stance straight from Angelina Jolie.
Side-by-side comparison of the two women during a summer sunrise, with a fire on the way. His day was off to an exceptional start.
"What's her name?"
Gordon cursed. "Thought you were after Vanessa. I was gonna have a clear shot at..."
"Buddy, she'd eat your lunch." And by the look of her, she would.
Gordon was too decent a guy at heart for someone who looked as tough as the newcomer did.
"Besides, I am thinking about Vanessa. She just doesn't appear to be thinking about me so much." Hurt to admit, but it was true. His attempts at charm had produced exactly no results. Yet. He could be patient when a woman looked as good as she did, and his ego wasn't ready to admit defeat. Yet. At least not in front of his buddy.
"In other words, she ate your lunch. I thought everybody fell for the Mr. Northwest outdoors guide."
"Dad is the adventure guide. And it doesn't mean that. It means-" Mickey stopped.
The leaders of MHA were done with their conference.
Besides, it meant exactly that, but he still didn't want to admit it. Not to Gordon. Not to himself. Vanessa had a real spine under that quiet exterior, which only made her all the more attractive for what good it did him. It wasn't that the vibe was off or whatever it was that women said. It just hadn't...clicked for him. Or he hadn't clicked for her?
But watching her side by side with the new recruit, he was suddenly glad that nothing had clicked. The blond was spectacular. Suddenly all of his some girl, someday talk didn't seem quite so remote.
"It seems," Mark called out over the assembled pilots and the twenty smokejumpers of MHA, "that there has been a new ‘export' problem and they've asked us to stop it from happening."
Mickey looked at Gordon, who only shrugged. Even Akbar, the lead smokie, was looking a bit lost and he always had the inside scoop.
"I thought export problems was what the Customs Service was for," some wag shouted from back in the crowd.
"Next you heli-pilots will be trimming trees and inspecting power lines," a smokejumper called out, and others laughed.
"We'll start using smokies for express delivery of online shopping parcels," Mickey shouted back, and the laughter grew. "About all they're good for anyway. Real battle is from the sky."
There were a lot of tasks best done by helicopters, but not a one of them was as important or as hazardous as fighting wildfire.
Only the best of them flew to fire. And only the truly exceptional flew for MHA.
Which had Mickey looking toward the new blond again, as Vern riposted the next smokejumper tease.
Ballerina or workout instructor didn't get you in the cockpit of an MHA Firehawk. And especially not the lead ship. To do that, she had to be fantastic. So what did she bring?
At that moment, she turned to look at him.
Robin concentrated on not shifting foot to foot while she waited. Would the new commander hold her first-day tardiness against her? For getting lost in the goddamn rabbit warren of a barracks? And then gawking like a schoolgirl at the trees and the drone launcher and the line of Firehawks and...
Enough time had passed that everyone should have stopped staring at her by now and she could turn to scan the crowd. Time to assess just who she'd signed up with.
And the first place she looked, there was a guy staring at her from the far side of the crowd. No one else, just him.
And then another, whom she vaguely remembered meeting yesterday, looked over the man's shoulder. No comparison.
Blue eyes, short-almost crew-cut short-brown hair, and one of those friendly faces that looked like it smiled too easily and too often.
At the truck stop, they were the one kind of guy you could never figure out. The ham-handed ones were easy to spot and all of the women knew to look for the extra pair of straws that were always dropped along the outside edge of such tables, a clear sign that "This table sucks."
Most of the truckers were fine, decent guys, and there were a lot of couples rolling down the roads, way more than in Mom's youth. She'd been able to pick out any of those types easily by the time she was ten and wiping down tables after school.
But then there were the ones like this guy on the far side of the crowd. Flying solo, looking nice...very nice, and wholly unreadable. Mr. Nice Guy or Mr. Jerk? It was hard to tell, because at the moment, he had a rather bug-zapped expression.
Mickey tried to look away, but that so wasn't working. Her eyes were a brilliant blue, the color of the morning sky now shining above them. High cheekbones and a chin that made him wonder what it would feel like to run his fingers along its lines.
"Told ya," Gordon whispered behind him.
Mickey offered her a friendly nod. She returned it. Not cautious or calculating like you'd expect from a newcomer, but a short, assessing greeting. Then she turned her attention back to Mark as if Mickey had suddenly ceased to exist.
A soft "Damn" was all he could manage. Hot didn't begin to cover this lady.
"Told ya," Gordon repeated himself beneath the last of the back-and-forth banter. The crew was feeling good, ready for the start of the season.
"Mount Hood Aviation sightseeing tours will be next. I've been telling Mark that's all you air jockeys are good for anyway," Akbar teased them.
Mickey had been feeling good too. A final glance to the blond and he felt even better now.
"We have"-Mark raised his voice to quash the last of it-"a little lightning-strike fire east of nowhere in Alaska. It's in an area classified for limited to no intervention. Normally they'd just let it burn, as there are no nearby towns. However, it has grown up in the last twenty-four hours and thinks that it has a passport and entry stamp to cross into Canada."
"That's our kind of export problem," Mickey shot back at Akbar. First fire call of the year always felt great. It wouldn't be until they'd had a month or two of impossible hours and crappy camps that the feeling would wear off. Even then, it beat the dickens out of any day job he could imagine.
"I thought Canada wouldn't mind," Jeannie asked. "They're into sustainable forest burn now." Jeannie was getting good. Of course she'd have track of all of that, what with her fire management degree and working along with Carly the Fire Witch-as the fire behavior analyst was known all up and down the coast because she was just that accurate.
Let her be the next Carly; he didn't care.
Mickey was a flyer first, last, and all the way in between. Which left him to wonder again what the blond was.
"Not when it's threatening Dawson City," Mark answered Jeannie's question. Mickey really had to focus. The new woman was already distracting him. Women didn't distract him; he enjoyed them and fully appreciated how easy it was to gather them up at bars or his sister's wedding with "I fly a helicopter to fight wildfires." But this one was making him-
"Isn't that like twenty miles into Canada?" Gordon called out.
"More like forty," Mickey answered, but Gordon's question made good sense. That was a lot of territory for a fire to cover.
"The fire burned forty thousand acres last night and is rated at zero percent contained. They want us to stop it before the strong westerlies help the fire chew up another hundred thousand acres and the only city for three hundred miles around."
Mickey had flown enough fires in the Alaskan and Canadian wilderness to be familiar with Dawson City. It had thirteen hundred people, making it the second largest municipality in the Yukon Territory-an area bigger than California. It had fallen below "city" size with the collapse of the gold rush at the turn of the prior century, so it was technically the Town of the City of Dawson. And if the fire analysts were worried about a U.S. fire reaching all the way there from Alaska, it was an early-season monster in the making.
"Canadian firefighters are heavily engaged in the Banff fire at the moment and our crews are chasing a mess outside of Anchorage. The Alaska Fire Service put out a call for our full team. So, smokies: get outta here! Helicopters will be hot on your tails."
The lead smokejumper let out a Whoop! that was picked up by the other smokies.
Robin froze, because the slightest movement seemed likely to get her trampled as they raced for the parachute shed and their full jump gear.
That thinned the crowd at the base of the radio tower by two-thirds and she could see the guy who'd kept watching her more clearly. He looked solid in the way of someone who'd always been fit, even as a kid. On a soldier, you could see the guys who'd been bulked up by weights and war versus the ones to whom it was just second nature. This guy had always looked this good.
He grabbed a second energy bar, which was a good idea, so she did the same. Once they were aloft, they'd need both hands for flying.
Adding to the general mayhem, Chutes-the head of MHA's paracargo operation who she'd met yesterday-fired up his forklift to run pallets of supplies across the runway to the waiting DC-3 and Shorts Sherpa C-23 jumper planes. The first load was a whole pallet of pumps, chain saws, and gas cans followed by another one of food and Pulaski fire axes. Each had a big parachute strapped on top of the tightly bound gear.
For two or three minutes, the field was alive with smokejumpers rushing to their ready racks, grabbing jump gear, and racing across the field to their two planes.
Robin estimated that for the planes, flying from Hood River, Oregon, to Nowhere-and-Gone, Alaska, would be six hours plus a fuel stop. They'd be jumping the fire by lunchtime.
It was the one thing Robin hated about helos, the long hauls. At a good solid cruise, they were over ten hours from the fire, not counting two refueling stops which would stretch it closer to twelve. And by then, they'd be too wiped out to do much more than sleep. They wouldn't be on the fire until tomorrow morning. It seemed like a crazy system to be sending them so far, but these guys seemed to know what they were doing.
"Helos," Mark called from where he still stood with Emily and the others.
Mickey forced his attention away from the newcomer. She was taller than he'd first thought-close to his own five ten-and he'd always been partial to tall women. Her expression was intent. Despite being last to reach the line this morning, he'd guess there wasn't a lazy bone in that fine body. She looked as ready to spring into action as Akbar had.
"This is too far away for the MD500s," Mark continued. "But fear not. Gordon and Vanessa, they have a mess up in Washington at Leavenworth that needs your services. The fire chief is in desperate need of someone able to tackle spot fires in severe terrain and the MDs are perfect for that. Gordon has lead."
"Vanessa and me," Gordon whispered to Mickey in a tone of bewilderment, completely missing that he was in charge.
Oddly, Mickey could almost see that working, the dusky Italian beauty and the tall, Wyoming rancher boy. He gave Gordon an encouraging slap on the arm.
"I'm also sending one of the Twin 212s because the fire map looks ugly. Carly thinks they're underestimating the trouble they're in." Which meant they were wrong, because the Fire Witch never was.
Mickey held his breath, wondering which he'd prefer: Washington or Alaska, a chance to rub shoulders with Vanessa or the new pilot? He was on the verge deciding the latter on the basis of no more than that shock of shining hair and her brilliant blue eyes, when Mark called for the other pilot.
"Bruce, you're for Leavenworth. I need Mickey's deep experience in Alaska."
"No argument from me," Bruce called out. Bruce was just a two-year man. Good enough but needed close watching on the big fires. A small but messy fire would be good for him.
"Mickey, you're with the Firehawks." Mark raised his voice. "Your refuel stops are in Vancouver, BC; Juneau, Alaska; and final destination, Dawson City, Yukon Territory. There's an airstrip eight miles due east of town along the highway that will be our base of operations. You're aloft in ten. Firehawk One?"
"Yo," the new pilot called back. Nice voice. He'd expected rough and salty, or deep and throaty, but it wasn't either. It was surprisingly normal. A nice contrast to her tough demeanor-because she radiated the tough attitude that the guys had been warning him about.
"You'll have a standard config for that bird, which is Carly as your copilot and Steve with his drones in back. Denise?"
"Here." The mechanic raised her hand though there was no need. Despite her short stature, her long mane of blond hair would stand out anywhere.
"Kick your assistant Brenna and some supplies over to Bruce's bird. You and your main shop are with Vern up to Alaska. That does it. Get a move on, people; the forest is burning."
Denise and Brenna bolted off toward the service trailer.
Mickey almost left Gordon to his own devices, but he'd be bound to screw it up. Just as he was duty bound to try to cut his friend off from any attractive woman, he also had to help him if he could.
"What?" His friend still looked a little overwhelmed.
"With Vanessa, just be yourself. Don't gum it up with trying to be charming; it doesn't work for you."
"Sure it does," he protested. "I'm a charming kind of guy." He shot Mickey a grin.
Then he looked more carefully at Mickey's expression and sighed. Mickey didn't have to say a word.
"Okay, maybe not so much with the charm. Thanks, Mick." And he turned for his helo.
Mickey caught his sleeve before he could move off. "Her name?" He nodded back over his shoulder toward the newbie.
"Like the bird?"
"Like," that smooth female voice sounded from close behind him, "Robin Hood, who will put an arrow in your ass if you say Robin Red Breast."
Mickey turned to face her. He decided that all of his first judgments at a distance were accurate, and at this close range, they were ten times more powerful-both the fine looks and the serious dose of attitude.
"Hi! Mickey Hamilton." He held out a hand. "As long as it's not a Firehawk you're trying to ram up my ass, I'm fine."
That earned a half smile; nice on the lips, not touching those crystalline, pure blue eyes. Her hand was fine fingered yet strong, like she did a lot of lifting with it. A lot. She glanced over his shoulder.
"He's Gordon Finchley," Mickey filled in before Gordon could speak and get a foot in the door. Helping him with Vanessa was one thing; easing his access to this pretty unknown was not going to happen. "Yeah, Finch just like a little Tweety Bird. Don't pay him any mind."
"Hi, Gordon. Good luck in Leavenworth." She leaned around Mickey and reached out a hand, which Gordon shook as he mumbled something unintelligible. Or perhaps it was intelligible and Mickey just couldn't hear it.
He was struck by several things at once. It was the first time he'd actually seen Robin move, and both of his first guesses of ballerina and workout diva were equally justified. Her simple move was both lithe and powerful. Martial arts student perhaps. If so, it was a different form than his Taekwondo, something with more grace and flexibility.
Also, her lean toward Gordon had placed her so close that he could smell her. Her Nomex flight suit was brand-new and the woman wearing it smelled of clean soap and...cool ice-that impossible clarity of air when snow skiing. As if-newborn was the wrong image-newly wrought.
Gordon actually wasn't fluttery like Tweety Bird, but he was also clearly a sweet man-a major mark against him in Robin's book.
She knew from past experience that she tended to scare the shit out of men like him. They wanted her, but she would run over them roughshod, even on the rare occasions when she was trying not to.
This Mickey, on the other hand, she had been able to feel him watching her from the moment she'd hit the line. He hadn't shifted away as she reached past him to greet Gordon, letting her lean right into his personal space.
Guys named Mickey were supposed to look like hoodlums or something. Instead, Mickey Hamilton looked like a cop...or a firefighter. The trustworthy kind, not the sneaky shit she'd always pictured slipping from her mother's bed in the dark of the night and never coming back.
Up close, she could appreciate how nicely broad his shoulders were. And he had the kind of blue eyes that could see through any fog or other BS-far away the best feature on a very handsome face. He was an inch taller than she was but looked bigger and more solid than his taller finch friend.
Robin knew that-because her heritage was half firefighter and half truck-stop mama-she was a pushover for Mickey's type. Now she had to ask if she wanted to be a pushover this time or not.
She rocked back onto her heels and Gordon slipped out of her attention. Mickey didn't fade in the slightest. He had a slow smile, a real one that showed beneath the quick grin he'd been using to tease his buddy.
He didn't blink, squint, look away...or look down toward her chest. Mickey faced her eye to eye and offered that slow smile.
Summer is definitely looking up, she thought to herself. Most definitely. Didn't mean she was going to make it easy for him.
"Mickey? Like the mouse?"
Gordon snorted out a laugh, slapped Mickey on the back, and headed away.
"Not Mickey Rooney either," he offered in an unperturbed tone, showing no desire to hurry off to his aircraft.
"Not short and round?"
"Nor likely to break into a song-and-dance routine. And Mickey Mantle died about the time we both entered grade school, so I'm not him either."
"How about Mickey Blue Eyes?"
"Well, my name is Mickey. Eyes are blue."
"You don't strike me as the Hugh Grant romantic comedy type."
He shrugged noncommittally. "You the type to watch them?"
"Not so much," Robin admitted. Astute question. "So, Mick Blue Eyes it is."
At that, he smiled and those blue eyes lit and sparkled with laughter that was only suggested by the sudden curve of his lips.
Then those deep blue eyes shifted over Robin's shoulder for a moment and she could feel someone coming up close behind. Give her one guess and it was an easy one.
But rather than scooting away from the incoming Queen Bitch Beale, Mick-no, she did like Mickey better-turned back and took Robin's hand again for a moment. Instead of shaking it, he just held it for an instant and she rather liked the warm, steady feeling.
"See you in the air." Then he nodded to the woman behind Robin. "And we're really going to miss you, Emily." He addressed her much more easily than Robin would have dared.
"I can see that." The Queen's tone was dry enough to make the Tucson desert look well irrigated.
Mickey, looking not the least abashed, squeezed Robin's hand a final time and headed over toward his smaller Bell Twin 212-a respectable enough machine, though it couldn't carry half of what the pretty Firehawk hauled.
Robin braced herself before turning to face Queen Beale. Even pregnant, she was fit and beautiful. Her straight hair was a perfectly trimmed fall of gold to her shoulders. It caught the morning sun like a maiden Viking's helmet.
"You're a fine pilot," the Queen launched in without preamble.
Robin opened her mouth and then shut it again when the unexpected compliment registered.
"You also think you're the best pilot, which you aren't. But you have the potential to be or we wouldn't have hired you out of the forty applicants that we accepted for interviews and tests or the two hundred that we didn't accept at all."
Forty? Shit! Robin had kind of assumed she'd been the only one to apply. She sure hadn't seen anyone else around and had been hired right in the middle of the interview flight. Which meant QBB knew exactly what she was looking for, even if Robin had no idea why she was it.
Queen Beale had her take runs at flaming barrels with tanks full of water dipped from narrow streams. They'd flown tortuous routes among the crags and peaks of Mount Hood, right up past the tree line, to where the air was thin enough to drastically change performance profiles, and down into forested valleys so thick with fir trees that there was no sign of the land beneath.
She'd been sliding up to hover close beside a cliff when Beale's voice had shifted. Suddenly there were no longer instructions of "Do this! Go there!" It all became "When you're flying in this situation, you'll find..."
Robin had only needed to glance at Emily to be given the nod, "Yes, you passed. Now let's work on skills." And they had done nothing else for the last three days. Robin was good, but the amount Queen Beale knew about helicopters and fire was astonishing.
"Bruce, Vanessa, and Gordon are good pilots," QBB told her as they started across the runway. "They're coming up nicely, but they're on the Leavenworth fires, so you won't have to think about them yet. Jeannie, Vern, and Mickey, the three that you'll be traveling to Alaska with, are all exceptional. Jeannie has a degree in fire management and years of fire, Vern's years of flying Coast Guard makes him our best pilot, but Mickey is your fire specialist. He has more years flying to fire than the others combined. He's the best fire pilot I've got. You've met Carly and Steve?"
She had, barely, and offered a cautious nod. She was pretty sure Carly was the one who'd gone up to meet with the other leaders on the radio tower platform, but maybe not.
Emily slowed down her pace midfield with a curse and a hand on her belly. "This one kicks even worse than Tessa did. Carly flies left seat on Firehawk One. She is the top specialist there is on fire behavior. Her recommendations are gold; doesn't mean you have to follow them, but you'll want a good reason not to. Steve flies a spotting drone, typically from the backseat of my bird."
"Why do you people have a drone?"
Queen Bitch Beale's smile was chilly, enough to make Robin's blood freeze in her veins despite the warm spring morning.
"We have a couple drones and they are very useful." She backed up her words with a look that left no doubt Robin had damned well better take ownership of the team right fucking now.
"Got it!" Don't need to beat me with a stick. Soldiers know the importance of teamwork. And even though she was six months out, Robin knew she had a lot of soldier still in her "We have a drone."
"ScanEagle with infrared heat imaging for fires," Beale continued without acknowledgment. "Steve has a few other tricks up his sleeve as well. He'll mostly feed to Carly and she to you, but be ready for it."
They reached the Firehawk that had been Beale's but would now be hers for a season. It was in the middle of the line of aircraft parked along the far side of the narrow grass runway. Place of first choice. Yet another sign among the hundred Robin had seen that said, pregnant or not, QBB ruled. Robin liked that in a woman.
"I can see you discounting Mickey's smaller helicopter. Don't. He has more hours in it aloft against fire than you have in your entire National Guard service."
Robin nodded. Partly because that was interesting information about Mickey and partly because the Queen's attitude was one hundred percent that of a commanding officer, which made Robin's nod a self-preservation instinct. Of course, if Robin had run into a few more officers like this one, she might still be in the Guard.
"You'll be carrying the launch trailer for Steve's drone to Alaska with your Firehawk."
Her Firehawk. Just that simply Queen Beale was handing over the reins. It felt...weird.
"He'll make sure you have the information you need. Information's going to come at you fast and hard over a fire."
"I'm used to that." Robin patted the nose of Firehawk One. Hers?
"Not like this. Trust me." And Emily Beale smiled for perhaps the first time.
It was a powerful, engaging smile that made Robin feel as if she'd just crossed over some line. Unworthy to trusted? Outsider to insider? Most likely heathen outcast to razor-thin tolerance until her initial screwup, then outta there!
"In the Guard, when you were on a fire," Beale continued, "you heard from one source, Incident Commander-Air, which is Mark for us. But you're seated in the Number One bird for Mount Hood Aviation now. I almost gave it to Jeannie and pushed you into the Number Two slot, but your commanders convinced me to keep you front and center."
"My..." She trailed off. Of course MHA had called her former commanders. What was surprising was that they'd given her good reviews.
"They said you were an exceptional pilot and a royal pain in the ass."
"I expected the second part of that." Robin did her best to hide her shock at the first part, because while she'd done her best to prove it, they had sure acted like they didn't notice.
Then the Queen Bitch Emily Beale held out a hand that was warm from resting against her rounded belly.
Robin shook it tentatively, unsure of the message.
"Welcome to the club. My last commander was always saying the same two things about me." Again that radiant smile that was even more of a surprise the second time.
"Did he give you a good recommendation when you needed it?"
Emily looked amused, an expression that Robin had never expected on her face. "I don't know about that, but he did give me a wedding band and two children. I have yet to decide if the second child is a blessing or a curse." Though the way she kept a hand resting lightly on her belly, there was little question of her true feelings.
QBB had married her commanding officer, Mark Henderson. Which would explain why someone so military was out in the civilian world. Though it was clear this woman had plenty of backbone. If the military had been so important to her, why did she leave the service to marry her commander? What's more, why didn't he stay in anyway? Something in her story didn't make sense.
Three airplanes along the line fired to life with a distracting roar of large engines and the sharp buzz of accelerating propellers beating the air: the two smokejumper delivery planes and the Incident Commander's Beech King Air.
Emily turned to watch the Beech King Air but kept talking to Robin. "I can't wait to see how he flies that observing plane with two kids in the cabin. We're going to have to find a nanny willing to travel at high elevations." Then Emily's face shifted in a way Robin couldn't quite interpret and she turned away from the plane, now resting a hand on the nose of her Firehawk as if saying good-bye.
"Get aloft." Emily didn't look up but kept her focus on the helicopter or something beyond it. "Be safe. Listen to Mark from above and Carly from beside you. Vern doesn't speak much more than Denise, our quiet mechanic. Jeannie is an exceptional wildland firefighter, reads the flames almost as well as Carly. Vern is a masterful pilot. If you need someone to explain how they do what they do, listen to Mickey. In addition to being very skilled, he's highly observant and knows how to turn it into words."
And without another word or gesture, Emily Beale was gone.
Robin was left standing beside Firehawk One trying to remember who she was supposed to watch for what.
She looked down the line.
Firehawk Two was another husband-and-wife team; the woman must be Jeannie. The pilot sported an Australian accent and a fire-red streak in her dark brown hair. Her hubby was a world-class fire photographer. Hell, Cal Jackson was the wildfire photographer; didn't need to be on the outside to know that either. Over the years, he'd taken enough photos of the National Guard helos flying to fire to satisfy anyone. There were even a pair of shots-Colorado two years ago and California three years back-that Robin was fairly sure were her bird high up and making a drop. One had hit Time magazine the other the LA Times. Seriously cool.
Firehawk Three had a long, tall drink of water for a pilot, Vern. He was married to a tiny blond who barely reached his shoulder. Robin had been eyeing him for a little summer fun, but the blond was the chief mechanic. Denise, maybe? And you never ever pissed off your helicopter mechanic. Robin had never actually tried the married guy thing anyway, but Vern almost made it look tempting to try.
But having met Mickey Hamilton, maybe she'd no longer need to.
Parked beyond Firehawk Three, Mickey noticed her attention and shot her a cheery wave. She started to wave back just as Jeannie wound her Firehawk's Auxiliary Power Unit to life to start her engine; the APU had a high-pitched whine that sliced into Robin's ears.
Crap! She was behind again.
A redheaded woman from the kitchen pulled up close by in a battered golf cart and began wrestling a large cooler into the cargo bay of Firehawk Two. "Sandwiches, snacks, soda, cold water. Y'all are going to need it when you land because I won't be set up yet."
Robin nodded, but the woman was too busy unloading the rest of her supplies into the back of the Hawk to notice.
She shook her head to clear it and began working her way around Firehawk One, doing the Preflight Check to prepare the helo.
Nope. Still no reaction. The reality simply hadn't sunk in. No real surprise either-only her first day.
She was last in the whole line to climb aboard her helo. She scanned the Preflight Checklist to be sure she'd remembered it all. Yes! She'd gotten everything. Robin flipped to Before Starting Engines and checked the collective position lock, the seat belt harnesses setting, and strapped in, then the parking brake. She began throwing circuit breakers from memory. After that, she chewed through the Cockpit Equipment Checklist, ignoring the fact that everyone else's rotors were already churning air when she glanced down the line.
At least this time, being last wasn't her fault, at least not entirely. Emily had escorted her across the field and given her far more advice than she'd wanted.
But Robin had also stopped to meet Mickey and, while hard to regret, he had slowed her down.
Just roll with it. Nothing else to do.
The engines both fired off cleanly and the high whine of the APU had given way to the throaty roar of the twin turboshafts by the time Carly Thomas, the fire behavior analyst, hurried across the field toward her. The woman slipped into the copilot's seat.
"Do you fly?" Robin asked in the least-irritated voice she could muster. It was a lot of work to start a Blackhawk on your own. She'd seen Denise helping Vern and Cal helping Jeannie. Though she hadn't spotted anyone with Mickey on his Twin 212.
The fuel flow was good and the temperature was rising right along with Robin's.
"I have my basic rotorcraft ticket finally," Carly admitted. "But not much more. Emily always handled everything. I'm really in this seat because it gives me the very best view of the fire. I only got my ticket in case of emergencies, so please don't have one. We're picking up Steve's gear on the far side of the bunkhouse." Carly slipped it all out in one breath. She was a softer version of the Queen Bi-no, that didn't fit anymore.
Emily Beale was the Queen...Bee. How hard had that been for her to relinquish her helicopter just now? And...
Robin laughed aloud as she shut off the APU and finished the Engine Run-Up list.
She shook her head. Soon the high-pitched whine of the Firehawk's twin turboshaft engines overwhelmed the cockpit. They both pulled on headsets.
As soon as the intercom was live, Carly repeated her question.
Robin could only shake her head again in wonder. "I just realized the seat I landed in."
"Emily's." There was both reverence and doubt in Carly's tone, and it didn't take a genius to determine which part was allocated to Robin.
She understood now.
Emily clearly ruled the hive that was MHA's helicopter pilots, no matter that her husband was the outfit's boss. And now that Robin was in Emily's seat, she was going to have to figure out what to do about that. She'd led plenty of multi-aircraft flights in the Guard, so it shouldn't be a real problem.
Robin looked up and down the row. The other six helicopters were ranged to either side of hers. They all appeared finished with their preparations-rotors were turning above all of the birds. They each shot a thumbs-up to show they were ready. There had been none of the arrogant swagger that most National Guard pilots displayed, used to cow those around them, but neither was there the disorder she'd always observed among civilians. MHA pilots were organized and well practiced and had displayed no overt signs of ego.
Mickey had shown plenty of interest and enough ego to think she'd simply swoon over him. But he had carried none of it to the line that she'd seen.
Robin thought through the hundreds of pilots she'd served with at the AANG. Those who were the very best rarely bothered with ego. They were a cut above and knew it. They didn't need to flaunt it. Was all MHA at that level? Was Mickey Hamilton? If so, the summer was looking even better if possible.
That had been one of the big challenges for Robin in the AANG. When you deployed into a war, your crew and your flight turned into a cohesive team so interdependent that an injury felt personal and a loss of personnel was a guilt trip from hell for not being the one to go down instead.
Then, back stateside, weekend warriors were always trying to one-up each other, and the tight camaraderie that she'd so depended on in theater slowly dissolved. It ultimately shattered under the departure of those who had served overseas and the arrival of those who didn't have a damned clue.
MHA was the first time she'd seen a civilian team that felt like a team, rather than a clusterfuck of colliding egos.
The three planes had finished their run-up and taxied to the far end of the grass runway. The Sherpa and DC-3, their bellies full of smokejumpers, roared by the line of helicopters and wallowed aloft. The King Air followed close on its tail with Mark Henderson at the controls.
Directly across the narrow runway from her Firehawk, Robin could see Emily Beale standing at the base of the radio tower, holding her daughter's hand and waving at the twin-engine plane taking her husband aloft.
Now Robin understood the look she'd seen on Emily's face the moment she'd turned away from issuing her final instructions to Robin. It was the look of a woman left behind.
She wouldn't be for long. Robin was willing to bet good money that Emily would set records for returning to the flight line after she delivered, but still, the sadness struck at her heart.
Well, Robin was the one here now, and she was going to make the most of it while she could.
Over the radio, Robin cleared with a gruff guy named TJ in the field's small tower and was first aloft. He sounded like someone else sorry to be left behind.
Vern in Firehawk Three cleared aloft next to fetch his wife-mechanic's trailer. He'd be carrying it on a long line. Everyone else still sat on the ground while he and Robin picked up their gear.
She could feel Mickey's eyes tracking her across the field.
Robin was rarely self-conscious about her flying skills. When QB Beale had been critiquing them had been an exception.
With Mickey tracking her from the cockpit of this Twin 212, she was aware of the tiniest variations from an ideal flight path. She was flying a couple hundred feet across a field, for crying out loud.
She did her best to shake off the feeling, but it followed her anyway.
Mickey had eyes for nothing else as Firehawk One lifted from the line and shuffled across the field to pick up Steve's drone equipment. He'd watched Emily do the same thing every time there was a fire that couldn't be fought from right here at the base camp.
Robin made the flight completely differently. She flew like she moved, with power and grace.
And he still wasn't sure how he felt about it.
Emily Beale always flew the most perfect, most efficient path. You could feel her control and confidence in the slightest maneuver, which in turn instilled it throughout the team.
Robin flew well enough...but it was still somehow wrong.
He tried not to fault her for not being Emily Beale, but it was hard.
The Leavenworth flight called for clearance and headed aloft.
"Good luck, guys," Mickey sent over the radio.
They rocked side to side as a wave good-bye and headed northeast. Bruce in the lead with his Twin 212 and the Number Two mechanic beside him. Vanessa and Gordon side by side in his wake in the little MD500s.
"Best of luck, buddy." Mickey didn't hit the transmit switch as he sent a good thought aloft with Gordon.
Then he turned his attention back to Robin in Firehawk One.
It might feel wrong to have her in the air, but that wasn't her fault; she was just the unknown.
But on the ground, there wasn't a single thing wrong with her.
His twin T400 engines were at full roar, his two-bladed rotor was pounding the air. He was so ready for this fire season to kick off.
Yeah, he'd get over Robin being in Firehawk One fast enough.
Robin hovered to the farside of the runway, around the back side of the scattered buildings, and landed lightly. Steve, the handsome drone pilot with the bad limp, slid several cases-each two yards long and a half yard square-into her Firehawk's cargo bay. They must be the drones themselves. She picked up the hook on his drone's launcher, about the size of a small fishing boat trailer, and he climbed aboard.
They were ready.
As she climbed aloft and turned north, she rocked the controls side to side to wave good-bye to Emily. It was the best comfort she could offer.
Robin climbed up out of MHA's base on the side of Mount Hood in Oregon, turned north, and tipped the nose down. The Firehawk leaped for the horizon like an unleashed thoroughbred-or at least what they always looked like in the firefighting videos; she'd watched hundreds to prepare for the interview.
A quick glance back showed the others forming up around her. Diamond formation, Vern and Jeannie slightly to the rear and off to either side.
She couldn't see Mickey. After a moment's panic that something might have happened to him, she spotted him on the radar, flying just a little higher than she was and dead astern.
That moment of panic wasn't like her. Since when did she worry about a man that way? She hadn't thought of the helicopter or the pilot, she'd been thinking of the man.
As Mount St. Helens reared her pretty, glacier-capped head, Robin vectored the flight west to avoid the cluttered airspace around Joint Base LewisMcChord and the SeattleTacoma mayhem. She'd give this part of the country credit for having some character. Thick with green everywhere she looked, towering volcanoes, island-dotted Puget Sound-the Pacific Northwest was living up to its reputation for amazing geography. Maybe she'd take some time to explore it after the fire season, before she returned to the Arizona desert.
Robin's reputation was for being a ball buster, not someone who thought about a man's feeling. It wasn't by choice-not really. In the AANG and even more at the family truck stop, it had been a survival trait.
More than a few overly macho National Guarders had found out just how fast her counterstrikes were. Another gift of her grandmother's insistence on a dozen years of kung fu lessons. Robin and Mom had earned their black belts together, which had totally rocked. It had also provided a great deal of help during Robin's angry-teenager years. They'd worked out a lot of their problems on the sparring mat. Better than therapy.
In exchange, for her mom's sake, Robin managed not to threaten to rip the nuts off the truckers who palmed her ass. At least, not too often. Somehow, her section never drew the decent guys trying to make a living driving the long road. Her tables either drew the saccharinely happy married couples-which was never going to happen to this Harrow girl as long as she had any say about it-and the shits who did deserve a slow and painful castration.
Problem was, after one time having come pretty close to doing precisely that, she got a reputation down the line. Now, the worst of the truckers would come in to see just how tough she really was. A long line of bloody noses and broken fingers oddly hadn't hurt business or discouraged those trying to breach the femizon Iron Maiden's bastions.
Maybe she'd have been better off if she hadn't chosen to worship the bad girl who only survived for sixteen comic books, but what was a preteen girl seeking a role model supposed to do?
Sue Storm the Invisible Woman?
"Hi, I'm all-American and sweet at heart!"
Shit, woman. No way!
Chick in a too-tight one-piece. That's supposed to be a girl's role model?
Iron Maiden, cloak of shadowy chain mail that clung to every sexy curve, deadly assassin of Earth-616 series.
She at least had some moxie.
If she was Iron Maiden, what did that make Mickey? Iron Man?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is the 4th book in the Firehawk Series. Best read in order but each book can also be read as a stand alone issue. M. L. Buchman can certainly write about successful, fearless women who are on a mission in life and who meet men that change their minds, and he can do it well! These characters are people you would like to have in your own life... Mount Hood Aviation, ASA: MHA, contain an elite group of men and women who are firefighters and are sent on missions to fly into places far and wide by the government. In Flash of Fire we are introduced to former Army National Guard helicopter pilot Robin Harrow, who goes from a waitress in her family's truck stop in Arizona to joining up with MHA. She expects to fly and fight fires for one season and return back home. Plain and simple, but that's not how it turns out. Robin finds herself falling hard for this elite bunch of people but most certainly with a co-pilot who is as hot as the fires she's fighting and when they are sent on a secret mission together, the flames just burn hotter. Mickey Hamilton is a top notch pilot and loves to firefight, the two combined is his job and he loves it. Throw Robin into the mix and his job and life has just become complicated. He wants forever and she wants no promises. But while on a crucial and dangerous mission in enemy territory, the "what ifs" in their relationship is not so important anymore as staying alive is. And if that can happen then maybe they have a real good shot and a future together...
Robin is one headstrong woman, but I love her. Mickey is a strong man, but in a different way as he bides his time. He is more of a silent type, but shows in actions when the time is right. 4th in the Firehawks series, we meet up with some old friends that I have not seen since the Nightstalkers Series. I love the interactions of old meeting the new. All of the books are stand alone, but for me, they are enriched with the intertwining of past characters. Robin flying in Emily's helicopter gave me a hint of the strength of character that Robin would have in "Flash of Fire". I cannot wait until the next in the series. I recommend "Flash of Fire". 4.5 Stars!
Every time I read a new book by M. L. Buchman, I feel like jumping right into the next one because I don't want to leave the exciting, action-filled world he's built around his characters! Former Army National Guard helicopter pilot Robin Harrow is the newest pilot at Mount Hood Aviation and she's got big shoes to fill. Her predecessor is the most legendary helicopter pilot to have ever flown the skies both inside and outside the service and she's determined to bring her best game to this party, which is what she'll need to take on her new role. However, a little extracurricular activity won't hurt and fellow pilot Mickey Hamilton is just the person to give her what she needs. However, what Robin doesn't know is that MHA is not just a fire-fighting outfit, but is partly a black ops operation that is able to infiltrate even enemy territory under the guise of helping fight fires and she's about to get her first taste of the heat that comes with this job, both literally and figuratively. Robin started out with a major chip on her shoulder but all her experience with the National Guard did not prepare her for MHA, especially not the level at which they were operating and I enjoyed watching her realize that she was chosen because she had what it took to fit in there. Mickey was another surprise for Robin and after growing up with the belief that she was destined to remain single, it would take some mental gymnastics for her to come to terms with the fact that she could share her life with someone. One thing I love about this author's writing is the fearless and skilled women characters he writes and the fact that he's unapologetic about making them as alpha as can be, and having read a lot of his books I can say that Robin is way up at the top of that list, and Mickey was perfect for her because while he was her match in every other way, his laid-back and fun-loving nature balanced out her more intense and rigid side. They both had to adjust to being in each other's life, but in the end it worked out for them. I'm new to this firefighting series but I love that some characters and familiar things from the Night Stalkers carried over here, especially the black ops that ramp up the tension and the bonds of friendship among women who put their lives on the line and the men who love them. M. L. Buchman has become a favorite of mine and I'll read anything that carries his name, no questions asked. If you love action movies, romantic suspense or a well-researched and written book, meet your new favorite author! Disclaimer: I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Complex and technical as usual. I didn't care for Robin and thought Mickey was way too nice for her. Mr. Buchman has an annoying habit in all of his books of over using the word hammer/hammered. It's distracting. He's also joined the ranks of so many other authors that think more sex sells books. Great plot and plenty of action.
: FLASH OF FIRE is the seventh full length installment in M.L.Buchman’s adult, contemporary FIREHAWKS action, romantic suspense series focusing on an elite group of fire fighting experts-helicopter pilots, fighters, and jumpers from Mount Hood Aviation. The Firehawks series is a spin-off from M.L. Buchman’s Night Stalker military/romance/suspense series. Several characters cross over throughout the series but each book can be read as a stand alone without too much difficulty. Any important information from previous storylines is imparted where necessary. This is helicopter pilots Robin Harris, and Mickey Hamilton’s story. Told from dual third person perspectives (Robin and Mickey) FLASH OF FIRE follows new Firehawk recruit Robin Harrrow-a former Army National Guard helicopter pilot –as she is thrown head first into her first fire fight near Dawson City, Alaska where she will discover that only the best of the best are chosen for the job, and she is among the chosen few. With a personal recommendation from the top, Robin will take control of the mission ensuring everyone comes home alive. Enter Mickey Hamilton, the man who would steal Robin’s heart, but a man that will come up against some heat of his own. FLASH OF FIRE follows the Firehawk team as they struggle with the wildfires of Alaska, and then a chosen few are secreted away to a special mission overseas where Robin and Mickey are once again, partnered in a rescue operation that involves more than fighting fires. The world building continues to focus on the men and women from Mount Hood Aviation: their job; their friendships; and their relationships with one another. FLASH OF FIRE has a large ensemble cast of secondary and supporting characters from many of the previous story lines and series, making for an intimate and familiar feel to the story. As in all of M.L.Buchman’s story lines there is a copious amount of technical detail and terminology including an up close and personal view of whitewater rafting 101. FLASH OF FIRE focuses on the danger and life-threatening job of the elite fire fighting crews of the Mount Hood Aviation Firehawks. There are moments of darkness and danger, romance and love, action and suspense; and lighthearted humor at the hero’s expense-Mickey is a man who has fallen for a woman who isn’t about to settle down with any man. The premise is engaging and inspiring; the characters are heartwarming and passionate. FLASH OF FIRE is an action-packed story that shares an intimate look at the ‘super heroes’ in real life.
Spotlight Tour: Review, Guest Post & Giveaway: Flash of Fire (Firehawks Series) by M.L. Buchman http://wp.me/p3d0RZ-4We Publication Date: May 3, 2016 Genre: Romantic Suspense Reviewed by: Reading in Pajamas/ Donna Rated 4.5 Stars REVIEW: I liked Robin from the start. She was talented and badass but you could still relate to her. I especially loved her realistic reactions to being the new girl in the group. The author writes all the characters and how they interact in a fun way that makes you believe they have faced the ongoing dangers of firefighting together for a long time. There is a lot of technical information about fighting fires and the aircraft used but it did not detract from the lovely romance. Mickey is every girls dream, not only in sexiness but in how he lets Robin be Robin. This is another exciting installment in the Firehawks series and I loved it. *Review copy provided by Sourcebooks in exchange for an honest review.
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