Peyton Michaels stood at the edge of the group in front of the mess tent to watch the legendary firefighter step up to brief his crew.
Stories about Gabe Cooper and the Bear Claws, the best Hot Shot crew in Montana, had abounded during Peyton’s training to become a wildland firefighter. Most of the stories had been cautionary tales from the instructors, but even some of the trainees had heard about this crew. And when Peyton had been assigned to the Bear Claws, well, nervousness didn’t touch her jitters. Cooper didn’t take rookies, and he didn’t take to reporters. She was both, and would have to work hard to prove herself.
Was she ready?
Scratching her arm beneath the brand-new itchy Nomex shirt, she turned her attention back to the crew leader.
Movie-star handsome, with a long jaw, lean cheeks, deep-set brown eyes framed by long lashes and broad shoulders hugged by a black T-shirt. She’d forgotten how the sight of a handsome, confident man could kick up her pulse.
Cooper’s posture defined self-assurance. The lines that fanned from his eyes and the silver flecking his brutally short hair spoke of his years of experience. His tires-over-gravel voice conveyed his weariness, though it was only July, not quite the middle of the fire season.
The topographical maps on the bulletin board behind him were veined with different colored lines, and Cooper had marked their route in black Sharpie. He traced over it for emphasis, his hand square but oddly graceful as he dragged his finger down the line. The path appeared pretty darn straight, and with all the brush and gullies and boulders, that couldn’t be the easiest way.
Part of his legend was that he didn’t do things the easy way.
Peyton scanned his crew, most of whom cast curious glances in her direction. She could learn a lot about the man by his crew.
A young redheaded woman stood at his shoulder and faced the rest, arms folded, a white bandage on one hand. She wasn’t quite one of them, but also wasn’t in charge. Every time the young woman glanced at Cooper, admiration glowed in her eyes. Cooper didn’t appear to notice. Perhaps he was accustomed to it.
Peyton was a little surprised to see almost a third of the crew were women. Five women besides the redhead, all mid-twenties, not unattractive, proved he had nothing against women.
The men who rounded out the crew ranged from farm boys to rock-band rejects, teenagers to men near her age, some with tattoos and earrings and others with wire-rimmed glasses. All gave Cooper their full attention. He was without question the stuff legends were made of.
Peyton had had her fill of mythical creatures.
“Any questions?” Cooper asked, directing the question at her, sending her nerves skittering. When none were forthcoming, he dismissed them to get their gear, and moved straight toward her.
The skittering nerves started a mambo, and it took everything in her not to step back. The rest of the crew moved slowly as they gathered their gear, watching Cooper.
Not taking her eyes from him, she reached down and hefted her pack onto one shoulder. “There’s been a mistake.” He flicked his gaze to the freshly stenciled name on the pocket of her fire shirt. “Michaels.” His tone had softened a bit from when he was addressing his crew, but still had a take-no-crap edge to it. “I don’t take rookies on my crew.”
She straightened. “I’m not. I mean, I am. A rookie. But I’m Peyton Michaels from Up to the Minute magazine. I’ve been assigned to your crew.”
A reporter. Gabe scowled. That explained everything but the fire shirt that bore no crew insignia. Maybe she’d borrowed it to get into camp. What the hell was she talking about, though, assigned to his crew? He glanced toward the media tent. “I beg your pardon?”
His harsh tone made her draw back, but only a little. “I’m going out with the Bear Claw Hot Shots. Jen Sheridan said you were the best.”
Jen Sheridan. The name kicked him in the chest.
He studied the reporter in front of him. Her elegant features, slender nose, high cheekbones, pale skin, hinted at a privileged upbringing. Her cleanliness pegged her as a rookie. The odd thing was, she was no young girl. Her sharp eyes, the slight creases near them and also around her mouth, made him think she was in her thirties. What kind of job did she think she was walking into?
“The last thing I need is some reporter following me all over the mountain asking stupid questions and getting in the way,” he said.
“I assure you, I’ve done my research and gone through the necessary training.”
“I assure you, I could give less than a damn,” he drawled. “I’m here to get a job done, and I don’t intend to let anyone slow me down.”
“I’m here to get a job done as well,” Peyton said, shifting her pack. “I have my fire card. I can pull my weight.”
He expelled a doubtful snort. “Pulling your weight on my crew isn’t the same as making it through the Forest Service’s sorry course. The Bear Claw Hot Shots are the best of the best, and they’re that way because I don’t tolerate slackers.”
She rolled her shoulders back and lifted her face. “I can understand being the best. That’s what I want, and that’s why I wanted you.”
He took a step closer, dragged his gaze over her. A beautiful woman saying that to him shouldn’t raise his temper. “Ego stroking is not necessary.”
She didn’t move away and returned the inspection. “No, I can see that.” A smile quirked his lips at her boldness.
“Who assigned you to me? Jen?”
She blinked up at him. “Yes. Do you know her?”
Did he know her? When Kim had told him that Jen was IC on this fire, he’d considered asking to be sent to another fire. But to ask would be to admit defeat, to admit working for his ex was too difficult, that his feelings for her were too strong.
If he took the reporter without a fight, Jen would think he was avoiding her.
He gave the reporter—he had to think of her as that and not as the compact little blonde who glared up at him with big brown eyes—a last glance and turned toward the command tent.
Jen was alone in the tent, behind a folding table, her attention on the maps spread in front of her. She looked up at his approach, and her expectant expression froze, morphed into something bland, distant, like she didn’t know him. Way to hit a man right in the ego.
The past three years had been good to her. The healthy tan set off her streaky blonde hair. She appeared—softer, her face fuller. Damn.
“Gabe,” she said quietly, easing back in her chair. “I heard you were on your way out. Good to see you.”
To fight the stab of pain at the encounter, stronger than he’d expected, he slapped his hands on the scarred table between them and glowered down at her.
“Just how much do you hate me?”
Jen returned his gaze unblinkingly, long past being intimidated by him. Hell, why should he intimidate her now? She’d left him without a backwards glance, and here she was, incident commander, his boss on this fire. She’d hold that over him till he got out on the line.
She folded her arms over the maps in front of her and tilted her head back to meet his eyes. “I don’t hate you at all. What are you talking about?”
“The reporter,” he ground out.
“Ah.” She sat back, looking a hell of a lot more relaxed than he felt. “Ms. Michaels wanted the best and I’m giving her to you.”
Her choice of words gave him a moment’s pause, but only a moment. She didn’t hate him, but he’d spent the better part of a year hating her before shutting off all feelings completely. That they’d return now in full force had him reeling. He pulled himself back to the fight at hand.
“She’s a rookie.”
“You’ve taken on rookies before.”
“Not by choice.”
The way she regarded him carried him right back to the last days of their marriage, cold and condescending. “What makes you think you have a choice now?”
“You’re putting my entire crew in jeopardy to get even with me.”
She blew out a breath and leaned forward again, not releasing his gaze, unwilling to give him that victory. “This has nothing to do with you. With us, anyway. It’s about which crew would benefit her the most.”
“To hell with fighting a fire.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Careful, Gabe. You’re sounding misogynistic. Peyton can do the job. And it won’t be the whole season, just for this fire. Her story’s on wildland firefighters. Once it’s done, she’s gone.”
“Great. As long as she’s invested in the job,” he said contemptuously.
“She’s trying to experience the job. It’s no big deal. There’s nothing scandalous coming out of this.”
He voiced his opinion of that in a few succinct words.
“One shift, and then you find another crew for her.”
Jen inclined her head. “We can discuss it.” She turned back to her maps. “Is that all?”
Was it? What else could he say to the woman he hadn’t seen in three years? He couldn’t let her go without a parting shot. “Give Doug my best.”
The shocked expression on her face gave him a millisecond of pleasure before he shut that down as well. “You mean it?” Her voice was breathless with hope.
He wished he could be the type of man who would mean it, but he was a bastard. “No. He already got it.”
He pivoted and strode out of the tent.
Fire season was usually hell, but damn, what had he done to deserve this? Maybe this was God’s way of telling him it was time to get out of the Forest Service. Sure, great, but after punching line for twenty years there wasn’t another job he knew as well.
He swore he wouldn’t live in a city again, so being an EMT full time was out. The only way he could bear his time in Albuquerque now was knowing that once spring arrived he’d be back in the mountains. He’d be damned if he’d sit behind some desk in the Bureau of Land Management and send kids into situations out of his control. He was a Hot Shot till the end. Nothing would take him off the line.
So God could just keep on sending those messages. Gabe Cooper was sticking it out.
Peyton Michaels—what kind of name was Peyton, anyway?—sat smugly on a picnic table, waiting for him, her pack still over one shoulder, her ponytail over the other.
He jabbed a finger at her. “If I agree to this, it’s for one shift and one shift only. You do your job without question, understood?”
Those chocolaty eyes went wide. “Yes, sir.”
“I mean it, Michaels. My crew is the best for a reason, and I’d like to keep them in one piece. The way we work is they do what I tell them to do. Got it? And you call me ‘sir’ again, the issue is off the table.” He slashed his hand through the air for emphasis.
“Of course. Gabe.” She even said his name with a smile in her voice.
He lifted his eyebrow. She had guts. Hell, how could she have anything less, walking into a fire camp and asking to go on the line with the best crew? But as a reporter for Up to the Minute weekly news magazine, she knew something about being the best too.
“I meant the part about questions. I don’t give interviews.”
She angled her head in a way that made him feel like an idiot for saying it. “I wasn’t going to ask for one. This is a look-see assignment.”
He grunted. “You have gear?”
She nodded and he could practically feel the energy, the excitement rolling off her. Her body all but quivered with anticipation but her expression remained cool.
“Let’s go,” he said through his teeth, and ignored the little skip of triumph as she followed him to gather his own gear before they met his crew at the edge of the camp.
Peyton joined the middle of the disciplined single-file group. They headed out of camp on the dusty path curving up the mountain between rocks and shrubs. They’d be walking to a remote site. While the energy pulsed through her now, she hoped to maintain her strength up on the line.
As they got farther up the mountain, the unit shifted into bunches of three and four, and made their own path through the high grass and scrub, their excitement growing as they drew closer to the fire. Other crews had been this direction; someone had pounded down the grass before them.
Peyton turned her attention to the man who held such respect from the firefighting community, his crew, yet kept himself apart, plunging through the knee-deep brush alone.
His matter-of-fact, unapologetic manner reminded her of Dan. The recognition had hit her like a blow to her chest, bruising her heart and making breathing difficult. In her mind she saw her husband standing before the brass at his last debriefing, so handsome in his dress blues, so confident as he justified his SWAT team’s decision to invade that warehouse without a search warrant to stop the drug deal. If only he’d been reprimanded, had suffered some kind of consequence, maybe he’d still be alive. Instead, he’d been applauded, rewarded, and had returned to the job that killed him a year later.
Her “In the Line of Duty” articles had quickly gained recognition and popularity. She’d gone from Coast Guard rescue cruisers to EMT crews stationed in bad neighborhoods to this mountain. But still, nothing she’d written so far had shed any light on what the job fulfilled in Dan that life hadn’t.
The story on Cooper was a departure. Her other articles focused more on the jobs than on the men and women who performed them. She’d probably lost a lot of depth taking that route, but had needed the emotional distance as she grieved for Dan. Could she afford to give it up now?
While she worked up the nerve to invade Cooper’s space—she couldn’t very well write his story from this distance—she zeroed in on a conversation between two of the men who walked with chainsaws slung over their shoulders. Her own pack was heavy with her tools, weighted with bottled water, and these guys carried the machines like they were made of Styrofoam. Sheesh. Their ability so impressed her that it took her a minute to tune in to their conversation.
“You’ve been with him long enough to know how he feels about reporters.”
They were gossiping like old women about Gabe. Calling him an old man. Please. Still, intrigued, she moved closer.
“Why would she bust his balls after, what’s it been, three years? Hell, she married someone else.”
Who? Who? Who? Peyton willed them to give her a name.
“Women are like elephants, man. They don’t forget anything.”
Peyton wanted to take exception, but it was rude to interrupt an eavesdropped conversation.
“I hear she dumped him.”
“She had to have a reason.”
“I thought the smokejumper was the reason.”
Peyton eased back. Who had dumped Gabe for a smokejumper? What was his punishment?
But gossip wasn’t her purpose here. If she wanted a real story, she needed Gabe. He was her purpose.
* * *
Gabe’s mind cleared on the way to the line. He threw back his shoulders and sucked in a deep breath. Up on the mountain, the smoke wasn’t as bad as it had been at the camp. It skimmed over their heads to settle in the valley like a rumpled blanket.
The incline grew steeper, the dust-dry brush thicker, slowing their progress. From this altitude he could see the orange glow of the sun that had been obliterated in the valley. Above them floated the wisps of cirrus clouds preceding a front.
He swung around to inspect his unit strung along the trail, the loose gaits, the flashing grins, and suddenly felt very old. The next oldest in his crew was a decade younger. He turned to walk a little faster. He’d be damned if these kids could out-hike him.
Peyton trudged along with the others. She had to be in excellent shape in order to get her fire card, but endurance didn’t concern him. Training was nothing compared to facing the dragon up close.
She saw him looking at her and trekked on over, leaving the group in order to angle up the mountain toward him. She had guts, he had to give her that. If she’d been on more fires, she’d know better than to try to talk to him. Even Kim, who had been with him more summers than anyone else, didn’t talk to him on a hike. Beyond Michaels, his team watched with interest, waiting for him to shred the new girl.
But his heart wasn’t in it. Maybe it was curiosity about this woman. That was all it could be.
“I agreed to this for one shift only,” he said. “After this fire is contained, you’re out. You do your job without question, just like the rest of my crew. Got it?”
Her chin had tightened stubbornly as he spoke and he prepared for an argument, but she merely nodded. Okay. Something was not quite right with her not saying anything. After all, she’d come over here. So why was he the one wanting to ask questions?
He settled on, “You drinking plenty of water?”
“I’m fine.” She stumbled, belying her words, and he resisted the urge to reach out to assist her. She wanted to see what the job entailed, she better stay on her feet.
“You’ll be more comfortable on the trail.”
“I’ll be all right.”
Damn, she was hard-headed. Determination, he understood. Stubbornness just to prove she could do it was something else. “This is the easy part. We have a thirty-degree incline ahead of us.”
She grimaced. “And when we get there?” she asked, a little out of breath.
He showed no mercy, couldn’t afford to. Besides, if he kept up this pace, maybe she’d go back to the others. How long could he keep up the curiosity excuse?
“You know the drill. We cut line, cut down trees, stop the fire and go home.”
“As simple as that?”
This time he stumbled. “Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.”
She snatched her hand back from where she’d reached out to steady him. “You really love this, don’t you? The whole ‘my crew can do what no other crew can do’ mindset.”
He cast her an incredulous glance. “Are you giving me attitude, rookie?”
“I wasn’t aware you needed any.”
Now she was giving him mouth. No one in fire camp—outside Jen—had ever spoken to him like that. He kind of liked the awe with which most of the firefighters regarded him.
He kind of liked the attitude too.
He slowed to get a look at her. She already appeared exhausted. She’d removed her fire shirt and wore a white T-shirt so fitted it couldn’t be cool. Her lacy bra was visible through the thin knit. She’d pulled back her hair and locks of it fell toward her face, brushing the skin of her cheek, her throat. He thought, just for a second, to push her hair back into place but tamped down the urge, instead thinking her exposed skin was going to blister all to hell.
He gave his attention back to the trail where it belonged. “So why are you doing this? There are easier ways to get the story.”
“Do I seem the type to take the easy way?” She sidestepped an outcropping of rock with an agility he hadn’t expected.
“I don’t know,” he drawled. “I haven’t seen enough of you to know.”
He bit back a chuckle when she blushed. Had he stumbled onto some guilt over their sexual attraction?
“Put your fire shirt on, Michaels, and go back with the crew.” He kicked at the smoke hanging low on the ground. The smoke could hide the fire; they could come up on it without warning. The sheer challenge of the lethal hide and seek thrilled him. “It won’t be long now.”
The dragon was close.
Hot Shot is available at all retailers!