Meg Buchanan is determined to prove she didn’t get the trainer job in Redmond, Oregon’s rookie smokejumper class because of her family’s long history as firefighters—or out of pity. But if teaching one of her own brothers isn’t challenge enough, she’s shocked to see Lance Roberts in the new class of recruits. Once her brother’s best friend, and her first, unrequited crush, he’s also the son of the man responsible for her dad’s death.
Lance is stunned to realize that this confident redhead is the stubborn girl he once dreamed about. There’s no way he can fall for her now. He needs to focus all his attention on his training—and uncover the truth behind the long-ago fire that killed both their fathers. But as the undeniable heat between them threatens to ignite, someone attempts to put an end to Lance’s amateur sleuthing—and his life…
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Driving from Bend to the smokejumper base in Redmond, Oregon, was like traveling back in time. It only took a half an hour, but the trip set Meg Buchanan back ten years.
As she pulled into the parking lot of Redmond Air Center, the tires of her Forerunner crunching on the dirt and gravel drive, she repeated the pep talk she'd been giving herself the entire ride.
She had the job. She was officially an assistant trainer and safety instructor for this year's Redmond smokejumper rookie training.
She wasn't a firefighter, but she was a physician's assistant with lots of practical medical knowledge. She was qualified. More importantly, she was a seasoned triathlete. She was in tiptop shape, and she definitely could run some rookies through their paces. Add her willingness to do the job for barely any money and her uncle's glowing recommendation, and she'd been approved.
That was her mantra. She could do this. She had the skills. She'd been approved.
She refused to accept that she'd been given this job because of her last name.
Sure, Will, her oldest brother, was an active Redmond smokejumper, and Uncle Joe was the base manager. Her middle brother, Hunter, would be in this year's rookie class. Together, they made a pretty impressive Buchanan family legacy at Redmond.
But, if she'd received preferential treatment, it was because her father's name — Jason Buchanan — rested on the memorial wall at the base, along with the other firefighters who'd given their lives in sacrifice to this job.
After shifting the truck into park, Meg dropped her hands into her lap and abandoned that train of thought. No use tempting the universe by spilling doubt and negative energy all over it. She had the experience, and she was going to give this job everything she had.
This was her chance.
She'd never been able to become a firefighter like her brothers. After hours of counseling, she couldn't overcome her paralyzing fear of fire. But, this? She could do this. These rookies were in for the training of their lives.
And she'd finally feel like she was honoring her birthright.
With a deep breath, she checked her reflection in the rearview mirror. She'd pulled her red hair into a low ponytail and applied light makeup. Dressed in tan slacks and a pale pink blouse, she looked more like she was seeing patients than reporting for a physical trainer position. She was more comfortable, though, professionally dressed, put together.
If things were orderly on the outside, the inside would follow. She'd learned that lesson years ago, after her father's death. Her mother had cried, and their home fell to pieces. When people showed up with food and condolences, the disaster in the house amplified how broken they were. Dishes in the sink, overflowing laundry baskets. Sleep eluded Meg those first nights, so she washed dishes, did laundry, and dusted until her body gave out. The next day, she'd cooked to fill the silence. The days stretched on, and no one ate unless they were reminded.
Eventually, though, the movements of normalcy made her feel more normal.
Fake it 'til you make it, her mom had joked. She'd never taken that advice, but it had worked for Meg. Pretend until the lie matched reality.
She exhaled slowly, pursing her lips. With shaking fingers, she smoothed her perfectly tidy hair once more, nodding at her reflection. She had this.
Snagging her wallet and phone off the passenger seat, she tossed them into her well-worn gym bag and zipped it up. Slinging it over her shoulder, she gripped the straps to her chest like a shield and opened the truck door.
Gravel bit into her ballet flats, but she ignored the discomfort. Around her, the parking lot was full of pickup trucks and Jeeps, a few larger SUVs and late-model sedans, and even an Econovan thrown in for good measure. The van had curtains. She wouldn't be surprised if its owner lived out of it.
There were a few guys unloading their cars, yanking duffel bags and equipment from trunks. Most of them were in their twenties and thirties. All of them were in amazing shape. The uniform seemed to be a mix of camo, Under Armor, and facial hair. A couple of the men paused to watch her walk by.
Maybe she should have put on her running clothes, some track pants. She looked as out of place in her business clothes as a peacock at a rhino tea party.
Her eyes straight forward, she hiked her bag higher on her shoulder and picked up her pace. As she approached the door, her uncle stepped out.
"Meggy." His smile, buried under a few days of beard growth, was as warm as always. Her shoulders relaxed in response. "You're early."
She stepped into his open arms. Uncle Joe gave the best hugs. "They pulled back on my hours last week in preparation for my time here. I finished earlier than expected today."
He leaned out of their embrace, scowling at her. "You're sure this won't affect your position with Dr. Colman, right? They'll let you return when training is over?"
She grinned at him. "I told you. Dr. Colman is happy that I'm helping. She's fine." It had taken a little sweet talking, playing up how good of a community outreach opportunity this was and promising to pick up shifts on the weekends while she was at the air center. Patrice Colman recognized a good deal when she saw it. She'd wanted to start opening on Saturdays for months, so she hadn't passed up this opportunity. But, Meg wasn't about to tell Uncle Joe that.
He patted her shoulder. "That's good, then. I'm not going to answer to your mom if this impacts your career."
Meg stiffened. "I'm twenty-five, Uncle Joe. I manage myself." Besides, they both knew her mother hadn't managed much of anything in years.
Joe nodded. "Right. Well, your brothers should be here soon. Do you want me to show you around?"
She laughed. "It's been a while, but I think I know where I'm going." She and her brothers had visited her father here often. Years ago, her mother would bring the smokejumpers cookies, muffins, whatever. She used to love to bake, and it gave her an excuse to see her husband. These days, the only time her mother's oven heated was for the Sunday dinners Meg cooked for them.
Meg scanned the exterior of the air center. "Place hasn't changed." Ten years later, but the air center looked the same. Behind the hangar, the airfield stretched across the open field. The Cascade Mountains filled the horizon. Here, without the multi-story buildings in Bend, the peaks were in full, majestic view.
"Why ruin a good thing?" He chuckled, wrapping an arm around her shoulder. "Come on. Let's get you settled."
As he guided her to the door, the rumble of an engine made her pause.
Either the Jeep that turned into the parking lot needed a new muffler or its owner wanted everyone to hear him coming. As it parked, everyone in the lot had stopped to look. Which meant this truck wasn't a regular fixture at the air center's lot.
She sniffed. Apparently, the diva of this year's class had arrived.
The Jeep's engine died, and its doors swung open. Like the other men in the lot, the one who jumped down from the passenger side was in excellent shape. He was probably six-two or so, and his T-shirt did nothing to hide the cords of muscle on his wide shoulders. But, it wasn't the passenger that snagged her attention.
The driver slammed his door and strode to the back lift-gate. She didn't see his face, only the back of him, but his gait was familiar, with more swagger than his passenger. He was as tall as the other man, and just as broad-shouldered and slim-hipped. The tilt of his head as he tossed a few bags onto the ground, the set of his shoulders as he closed the back of the Jeep, though ... if returning to the Redmond base was a blast from the past, this man was a punch to the gut.
She didn't realize she said his name out loud until Joe grunted. "Yes. Lance Roberts."
Meg hadn't needed his confirmation. She'd know Lance anywhere. After ten years, her body hadn't forgotten watching him, wishing he was hers, with the added misfortune of embodying the "little sister in love with brother's best friend" cliché.
Hard to forget embarrassment like that.
Lance the boy had been the stuff of her girlhood dreams, and more than a few other girls' dreams, too. As she watched, he grabbed his bags off the ground and the muscles of his forearms tightened. Heat stretched up her spine, warming her stomach.
Lance the man probably occupied more than a few women's dreams now as well.
Meg spun sideways, not wanting to be caught staring at him. "What's he doing here?" she whispered. She smoothed the end of her ponytail, and then tugged at her blouse, straightening imaginary wrinkles.
Catching herself, she squeezed her fingers together in front of her, forcing them still.
"Now, Meggy. I need you to be open-minded. And, I need your help with your brothers ..." Joe's head dropped, and he rubbed the back of his head.
"Joe, what have you done?" There were only so many reasons that Lance would be here, at the air center, right now ...
"I offered Lance a job, if he makes it through training." His half grin looked pained. "He'll be in this year's rookie training class."
* * *
"Subtle, man." Dak Parrish, his helitack buddy from north California and fellow member of this year's Redmond rookie class, joined Lance behind his Jeep and slung one of the duffel bags over his shoulder. "That entrance planned or does this shit just come naturally to you?"
"Nowhere to hide, anyway," Lance answered under his breath. Besides, he didn't shy away from anything. "And I warned you. You could have come alone." He and Dak were coworkers, but arriving together revealed them as friends, too. Dak might regret that once he saw how things were here.
Dak's brows dropped, and he growled, "Don't insult me."
His friend's outrage made Lance smile, even though there wasn't much funny. For all his offers to do this alone, he was glad that Dak hadn't let him. He'd thought he was prepared to be back here, but apparently, he'd been wrong.
They unloaded the rest of their gear. He used the time to cast stealthy glances at the rest of the parking lot, trying to get his bearings.
When he and his mother moved away ten years ago, he hadn't expected to darken Redmond's community doorstep again. Being back at the air center, like this? Hadn't been on his radar.
He refused to squander this chance. He didn't give a shit if Redmond would rather see the back of him. He was going to prove that he belonged here, whether they liked it or not.
And once he did, he was going to find out the real circumstances around his father's death.
"Do all these people know you?" Dak had an uncanny knack for speaking without moving his lips.
"No. Not all of them. Some of them, probably." Lance ducked his head, shrugging his arms into his backpack. "Or they'll figure out who I am fast enough." He glanced at his friend. "I look exactly like my dad."
"Your dad," Dak repeated, his brow raised. "And that's a bad thing?"
Lance had told Dak that his father had died on the job — smokejumping — ten years ago. He'd left out that a lot of people in and around Redmond believed that his father's carelessness or recklessness, or both, had caused his death ... and the death of his jump partner and best friend, Jason Buchanan.
"I guess we'll see." Lance clasped his friend on the shoulder, forcing his confident smile. He'd learned long ago how to hide behind it. "Let me show you around."
Weighed down by all their stuff, they trudged to the door. Only then did he catch sight of the redhead, standing at the entrance, talking with Joe Buchanan. She wasn't facing him, angled to the side, but he'd recognize her anywhere. He tensed, bracing for impact.
Dak whistled low. "Wow. Classy."
It took less than a second for him to figure out Dak was talking about the redhead and even less time than that for Lance's mood to darken. "Hands off."
The low, gravelly timber of his voice was nearly unrecognizable. But he definitely remembered the protective urge, the pull to this woman.
No, not this woman. The girl she'd been all those years ago. Hunter's kid sister.
"It's like that, is it?" Dak chuckled.
"It's not like anything," Lance gritted out, dropping his gaze to his feet, unable to stare directly at her. It was like looking at the sun. "That's Meg Buchanan. She was my best friend's sister."
"Was your best friend's sister? She's not his sister anymore?" Dak was having fun with this.
"No, man." He shrugged, doing his best to hide the pang in his gut. "He's not my friend anymore."
That wiped the smile off Dak's face.
"Lance." The man beside Meg stepped toward him, his hand outstretched.
Joe Buchanan. He'd become the base manager shortly after Lance's father died. Joe sent him the official job offer last month.
When Lance learned they wanted to hire at least four new jumpers at Redmond, he hadn't hesitated to apply. That didn't mean he expected to be offered the job.
Considering whom his dad was, he expected them to laugh.
When he got the acceptance letter, he called. He didn't want to drive to Oregon for nothing. Joe assured him there was no mistake. Lance hadn't stayed on the line long. He thanked him, assured him that he'd be there, and disconnected.
Didn't want to give him an opportunity to renege. A chance like this, to get to the bottom of what happened with his father? He wouldn't pass it up.
Last year ago, he'd worked with a hotshot who'd been at Redmond when his father had been here. The guy probably wouldn't have said anything to him, now that Lance thought back on it, not if they hadn't saved each other's asses more than once. Because how his dad was blamed for someone's death? That shit didn't come up in everyday conversation.
But one night, over beers, the guy got all loose-lipped, going on about how what had happened to his father had been a damn shame, how it had been unfair that JT Roberts had been blamed so thoroughly for Jason Buchanan's death.
Lance hadn't said much. Didn't seem like good beer-drinking chatter. But, when he got home, he called his mom. She'd forwarded what the Forest Services' investigator had given her, and Lance had read that file dozens of times.
He had to admit he agreed with the guy.
So Redmond smokejumper training killed two birds with one stone. He'd dreamed of becoming a smokejumper forever. Like his father. Now he could do it here. Where his father had jumped.
And, maybe being at Redmond would help him flesh out what had really happened in that fire.
Now, he wondered if maybe this all was a cruel joke or some nasty karma he was working off. He hadn't expected to see Meg. He knew Will, her older brother, jumped at Redmond. But what was she doing here?
He shook Joe's hand. "Mr. Buchanan. Good to see you." He turned to Dak. "This is Dak Parrish. We rappelled together in California."
"Mr. Parrish. Nice to meet you." Joe's smile appeared genuine. He shook Dak's hand. "Welcome to Redmond Air Center, boys." He turned, then, to his niece. "Lance, you remember my niece, Meg, don't you?"
When she faced him, his first thought was that her adolescent pretty face had delivered on its promise. Meg, with her red hair and crystal blue eyes, had never been able to fade into the background, even then, even when she wanted to. The woman she'd grown into was striking. Pale skin, but not a hint of a freckle, as if they wouldn't dare. Her hair wasn't strawberry blonde, but auburn. And, those eyes ... still the same sharp, smart eyes.
The nickname rolled off his tongue, like it always had. He and Hunter used to call her that because she always held herself in check, but when she got angry, she was a sight to behold.
She'd hated it.
It was a mistake, too, to call her that here, in front of everyone. It was a bold-faced reminder of how close they had all been a lifetime ago. But he refused to pretend things were different. They had been close ... once. And now they weren't. But, when her eyes lit, he didn't regret using the nickname one bit. He'd forgotten how much fun it was to ruffle Meg's feathers.
"Don't call me that." Where she'd been pale a moment ago, there was color in her cheeks, the prettiest pink. "We're not kids anymore, Lance."
"No. We're definitely all grown up." He let his gaze drift over her. Meg had always been tall, shooting up inches at a time in crazy growth spurts. But the girl he remembered had been thin, like a rubber band stretched too tight. The woman in front of him had grown into those long, lean limbs. Her legs went on for miles. She had a slim waist, and the arms she crossed over her pretty, high breasts were toned.
When his gaze returned to her face, his smile widened. Yep ... the eyes were definitely still the same. The package might be different, but the fire was still there, and he still enjoyed riling her up.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Tempt the Flames"
Copyright © 2018 Marnee Bailey.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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