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Fire Light Fire Bright

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-a Firehawks Hotshots romance story-

Candace Cantrell fights forest fires as a lead member of a hotshot crew. When she lands the opportunity to build a brand new crew of her own, she ends up with more than she bargained for.

Former Navy SEAL Luke Rawlings struggles with a past he can’t leave behind. A past that blinds him to the future, until the moment he tries out for a new hotshot crew.

Most people wish upon a star. Hotshot crews do it differently:

Fire Light Fire Bright

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1

“Hi, I’m Candace Cantrell. First Rule: anyone who calls me Candy, who isn’t my dad,” she hooked a thumb at Fire Chief Carl Cantrell standing at-ease beside her, “is gonna get my boot up their a*s. We clear on that?”

A rolling mumble of “Yes, ma’am.” “Clear.” and “Got it, Candace.” rippled back to her from the recruits. Some answered almost as softly as the breeze working its way up through the tall pines. Others trumpeting it out as if to get her notice. A few offered simple nods.

She surveyed the line of recruits slowly. Way too early to make any judgments, but it was tempting. Day One, Minute One, and she could already guess five of the forty applicants weren’t going to make it into the twenty slots she had open.

The one thing they all, including her dad, needed to see right up front was their team leader’s complete confidence. Candace had been fighting wildfires for the U.S. Forest Service hotshot teams for a decade. She’d worked her way up to foreman twice, and had been gunning for a shot at superintendent of a whole twenty-person crew when her dad had called.

“We’ve got permission to form up an IHC in the heart of the Okanagan-Wenatchee National Forest,” he never was long on greetings over the phone.

Her mouth had watered. A brand new Interagency Hotshot Crew didn’t happen all that often.

“I talked to the other captains and we want you to form it up.”

Now her throat had gone dry and she had to fight not to let it squeak.

“Me?”

“You aren’t gonna let me down now, Candy Girl?”

“You shittin’ me?” Not a chance.

Then he’d hit her with that big belly laugh of his.

“Knew you’d like the idea.”

And simple as that, she’d been out of the San Juan IHC at the end of the Colorado fire season and back home in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State. She’d grown up in the resort town of Leavenworth—two thousand people and a ka-jillion tourists. The city fathers had transformed the failing timber town into a Bavarian wonderland back in the sixties. But that didn’t stop the millions of acres of the National Forest and the rugged sagebrush-steppe ecosystem further east in central Washington from torching off every summer.

The very first thing she’d done, before she’d even left the San Juan IHC, was to call in a pair of ringers as her two foremen. Jess was short, feisty, and could walk up forested mountains all day with heavy gear without slowing down a bit. Patsy was tall, quiet, and tough. Candace had them stand in with the crews for the first days because she wanted their eyes out there as well.

“Second, see that road?” she asked the recruits and pointed to the foot of National Forest Road 6500. She’d had their first meet-up be here rather than at the fire hall in town. A gaggle of vehicles were pulled off the dirt of Little Wenatchee River Road. Beater pickups dominated, but there were a couple of hammered Civics, a pair of muscle cars, and a gorgeous Harley Davidson that she considered stealing it was so sweet.

The recruits all looked over their shoulders at the one lane of dirt.

“We’re going for a walk up that road. We leave in sixty seconds.”

Like a herd of sheep, they all swung their heads to look at her.

“Fifty-five seconds, and this ain’t gonna be a Sunday stroll.”

You could tell the number of seasons they’d fought fire just by their reactions.

Five or more? They already wore their boots. Daypacks with water and energy bars were kept on their shoulders during her intro. And despite it being Day One of the ten-day shakedown, all had some tools: fold-up shovel and a heavy knife strapped to their leg at a minimum. Only she, Jess, and Patsy had Pulaski wildland fire axes tied to their gear, but all the veterans knew the drill.

Three to four seasons? Groans and eyerolls. Packs were on the ground beside them. No tools, but they knew what was coming now that she’d told them—ten kilometers, at least, and not one meter of it flat.

One to two seasons? Had the right boots on, but no packs. They were racing back to their vehicles to see what equipment they could assemble.

Rookies? Tennis shoes, ball caps, no gear, blank stares.

“Forty-five seconds, rooks. Boots and water. If you’re not on the trail in fifty seconds, you’re off the crew.” That got their asses moving.

There was one man on the whole crew she couldn’t pigeonhole, the big guy who’d climbed off the Harley. His pack and the fold-up shovel strapped to it were so new they sparkled. But his boots and the massive hunting knife on his thigh both showed very heavy use.

A glance at her dad’s assessing gaze confirmed it. Something was odd about the Harley man and his easy grin. Not rugged handsome, but still very nice to look at. Powerful shoulders, slim waist. Not an athlete’s build, but rather someone who really used his body. His worn jeans revealed that he already had the powerful legs that every hotshot would develop from endless miles of chasing fire over these mountains and steppes for the next six months. It was like he was a Hollywood movie: some parts of him were so very right, but a lot of the details were dead wrong.

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