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By Bobby Hutchinson Joanna Wayne Kay David
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
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Chapter OneLINDA TATE had always been terrified of heights, although she was far too proud and stubborn to admit it. She wished now she'd babbled it out to whoever would listen.
It might have saved her from this.
Knees quivering and adrenaline pumping, she clung to the sides of the open hatch in the Twin Otter, high above the earth. Her heart felt as if it was about to come crashing out of her chest as she listened to a final briefing from her spotter, who was pointing way down at the tiny plastic orange panel that marked where she was supposed to land.
Except that she knew she was going to die instead.
She only hoped that her treasured digital video camera and the incredible shots she was about to get would survive. She'd been too scared to eat anything, so at least her body wouldn't be covered with vomit. If there was anything left of her body when this was over.
As a television news photographer for KBTS, San Diego's primary news station, she'd flipped a kayak while riding down a white-water canyon, been knocked cold and dragged through icy snow by manic sled dogs and gotten bucked off a horse at a famous dude ranch. Linda had come through every catastrophe smiling, albeit grimly at times, with film coverage that had won her severalawards.
Sure, they were for best comedic news coverage, but they were recognition all the same.
That was before she'd enrolled in Rookie Training for Smoke Jumpers.
"You two don't have to go through the whole thing, but in order to tag along with a smoke jumping crew, you have to know the basics and be fit," her producer had assured her and Jacob Gibson, the reporter whom Linda accompanied on assignments.
"You have to be trained as jumpers - we want the view from on high."
So ten days ago, she and Jacob had arrived here in Redding, the California training base for smoke jumpers. Even though they didn't have to, Linda had considered it a matter of personal pride to master the fitness qualification test - running a mile and a half in eleven minutes, then doing 25 push-ups, 7 pull-ups, and 45 sit-ups. Jacob had flunked on the running part, but further down the line he'd proved to be gifted at tree climbing. Go figure.
And he was also acing this final jump test, damn his hide. He'd launched himself out of the door moments before. His chute was floating downward with him attached, and she absolutely had to photograph this portion of the training for the feature.
But was her job worth this? Ending up thousands of feet above the ground, with a lunatic at her side shouting, "On final," and then - please God don't let me die - "Get ready."
She felt the sharp slap on her shoulder that meant go for it.
She screamed as she let go, and suddenly her feet were over her head, aiming up into the blue California sky, and she was falling - one second, two, three, four -
"Uuuumph!" With a miraculous snap, the blessed parachute deployed, a patriotic red, white and blue curve above her, and sky and earth rocked before coming into focus.
The world went profoundly silent.
Dazed, Linda gulped in air, glimpsed Jacob over to her left and down, waving up at her and laughing, and belatedly she remembered her camera. She snapped off shot after shot of him and the other jumpers as she floated down, and she was actually laughing herself as the earth approached, which was probably why she forgot to turn into the wind, the way she'd been taught, before she hit the ground.
Instead of a graceful landing, the wind caught her and she found herself sprinting like a demented track star for about a hundred yards, plowing up a final furrow of dirt and grass for another thirty before she frantically braced her feet and did a full face plant.
She lay still, ears ringing, tongue smarting where she'd bitten it. She swallowed blood and cursed, words her brothers had taught her and which she only used in extreme distress. The only positive thing she could think of was that she'd worn contact lenses and not her glasses. They'd have gotten smashed for sure.
"You okay, Lindy Lou?" The worried voice belonged to Jacob. He was puffing. She'd missed the patch by a long shot, and even after a week of daily torturous five-mile training jaunts, he still couldn't run worth a damn.
"No, I'm not okay." She was furious, and she was also lisping because of her tongue. "There's dirt down my neck, and my hands are all scraped." Linda sat up and rubbed sand out of her eyes, stripped off her gloves and, hands shaking, struggled with the snaps and buckles of her chute.
"That's it? Nothing broken?"
Jacob was kneeling on one side of her, and a medic was on the other. Ten of the rookies from the smoke jumping course were now ringed around, as well, anxious looks on their faces.
"Stop poking at me, I'm fine." She was royally pissed off at herself. And she wasn't the only one.
"Tate." The trainer now stood over her, arms akimbo, fierce scowl in place, voice raised to a dull roar. "What the hell did you think you were doing? You missed the patch by half a mile, and goddamn it, how many times did I stress turning into the wind on landing? And instead of taking goddamn pictures, did it dawn on you that you were supposed to be manipulating your goddamn chute?"
"Yes sir, sorry sir." She struggled to her feet and got rid of the chute, and the assembly gave a ragged cheer. She managed a grin and a wave in spite of the pain in her right ankle. Although there were a small number of qualified female smoke jumpers in the U.S., she was the only woman in this training group. Linda had vowed to prove that any female could do this and make it look easy. Well, she'd flunked the easy part.
Excerpted from Heatwave by Bobby Hutchinson Joanna Wayne Kay David Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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