When They Just Know


-an Oregon Firebirds romance story-

The Oregon Firebirds are the very best at one thing—saving homes.

Finding their own poses problems.

Jasper Jones flew as Curt’s wingman since he moved in next door at the age of six. But meeting Curt’s stunning older sister? He never could talk to her when they were kids. Time hasn’t fixed the problem.

Jana Williams holds herself together by the thinnest of threads. She lost her dream job as an Army helo pilot the day she lost her hand. And with that, her sense of self worth.

But nothing prepared her for the impact the right man could have on her life and her heart.

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Chapter 1

Jana Williams sat on a lawn chair beside the Denali pickup, clicking her hooks together while staring at the smoke-gray sky. She should be doing paperwork, checking bank balances (always a serious worry, though not as bad as at the start of their first-ever firefighting season), following the feeds from the six MD 520N firefighting helicopters that made up the Firebirds team…something constructive.

Instead, she was parked in the summer- and wind-parched landscape of Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge beneath a smoke-stained, dark Purgatory of a sky, while wildfire threatened the farms around Hood River. The tarmac of Ken Jernstedt Airfield shimmered with the summer heat, hazing the tied-down small airplanes almost to invisibility though they were only a few hundred meters away.

And the most useful thing she could think to do was clicking her hooks.

It had started as an innocuous habit.

Back before she’d lost her right hand, she’d had a habit of fooling with her hair when she was worrying at a problem. She’d found a much-needed distraction in the tactile slickness as it ran through her fingers, so smooth and fine that it almost didn’t feel as if it was there at all. It was like playing with golden water. She’d wind it around her fingers one way, then the other. And while some portion of her mind and body had been distracted doing that, she’d been able to think.

Thinking seemed to come much harder now.

After the accident and the end of her Army career, she still had the habit. But her hair snagged painfully in the mechanism of the hooks. Left-handed hair fiddling hadn’t been nearly as satisfying. Besides, that hand was now twice as busy as ever because it had to do most of the work of both hands. If she was going to lose a hand, why couldn’t it have been the left one? It still took her forever to sign a distorted version of her name, and fancy stuff like tying shoelaces, just totally sucked.

It was even worse when, like now, she was worrying at a problem but didn’t even know what it was.

Now she really needed some right-handed distraction, as if her phantom hand was still sending encrypted orders after the dropped Hellfire missile had crushed it past recovery. She supposed that she should feel lucky that the missile hadn’t exploded when the arms tech had misfastened the mount on her Sikorsky MH-60 Blackhawk. Jana had wiggled it during a preflight check of her aircraft—and it had let go.

Had her hand made the difference in easing the impact of the hundred-pound missile hitting the steel deck of the aircraft carrier? Had she averted disaster or just pointlessly sacrificed her hand? No one could say for sure. The stupid medal they gave her as a replacement for her hand certainly didn’t answer the question.

On her more cynical days—she tried not to think of them as morose or, god forbid, depressed—she’d wonder if she’d have been better off letting the damn thing fall and explode. Instead, she was left to appease her phantom hand and wonder.

Clicking her hooks together had taken some practice. She had to extend her arm to increase the distance between the hooks and where the harness anchored in a strap that ran behind her back and around to her left shoulder. She could also hunch her left shoulder forward. Either technique would stretch the distance and open the hooks; shrink it and the rubber band at the hooks’ base pulled them back together. Her innocent finger-twirl had turned into a shoulder twitch.

Jana often debated whether it would be more or less satisfying if her hooks didn’t have rubber gripper pads on the insides. It was more of a soft tap than a satisfying metallic click. Maybe…

Maybe she was totally coming apart. No real question about that actually.

“Nice to just stop for a minute,” Maggie Torres, the Firebirds miracle helicopter mechanic, plummeted into the chair beside her. She handed over a bottle of water still slick with condensation before opening her own.

Jana appreciated that Maggie never tried to second guess or help. They’d had a discussion of what Jana could and couldn’t do with her hooks, and Maggie had never forgotten once. Whether it was Maggie-the-mechanic or Maggie-the-friend who remembered, Jana didn’t ask. Friends had always been a tricky thing for her and she didn’t like to question what few tenuous ties she had to the world of fully configured humans.

Jana stretched her right elbow out and down and could feel the tension on her left shoulder as the harness took up the slack. She spread the hooks over the bottle’s plastic top, then eased the tension. The hooks clamped down hard. With a sharp twist of her left hand, she got it unscrewed.

The chill water felt good sliding down her raw throat. The summer’s late afternoon heat, the smoky air, and feeling like s**t had left her throat achingly dry.

“How’s the crew?”

Jana shrugged, one shoulder, because two would open her hooks and she’d have to fish the bottle cap out of the scrub grass. Instead, she waved her hooks at the radio she’d propped up on the pickup’s bumper. That motion made her drop the cap anyway. She ignored it. Just as she’d been ignoring the radio.

They both listened for a moment.

“Sounds like normal flight operations to me,” Maggie surmised.

Jana had to agree. Today’s mission for the Firebirds was saving farms: house, barn, and livestock—any orchards were an optional bonus. After half a season together, it was easy to pick out the team’s voices. Though one of them always sounded strange to her ears.

Jasper Abrams, her brother’s best friend, never spoke in camp, only in the air. Occasionally he would grunt at her brother—who led the Firebirds even if his wife Stacy was a better pilot. But that was about all Jasper ever did on the ground and even that was rare.

Whereas in the air—

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