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Hot Point

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Blurb

From wildfire to gunfire, these heroes battle more than flames.

“Top 10 romance of 2015. Suspenseful. Emotionally nuanced.” – Booklist

Master mechanic Denise Conroy—with a reputation for being as steel-clad as the aircraft she keeps aloft—shuns useless flyboys who don’t know one end of a wrench from the other.

Firehawk pilot Vern Taylor—known for unstoppable charm and a complete lack of mechanical skills—proves he’s a survivor and a natural-born heli-aviation firefighter.

When they crash together in the Central American jungle with wildfire on one side and a full-fledged military coup on the other, their newly forged partnership is tested to the max. Can their formidable skills protect them from the conflagration sweeping the jungle…and their hearts?

“High-octane action, three-dimensional characters to love, another sigh-worthy romance.” – RT Book Reviews

[Can be read stand-alone or in series. A complete happy-ever-after with no cliffhangers. Originally published in 2015. Re-edited 2021 for improved reader experience but still the same great story.]

Buy now to join the romantic firefighting adventure.

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Chapter 1-1
1 The sharp warning buzz of a critical system’s failure crackled through Vern Taylor’s headset. A momentary panic hit him as palpably as the time his best friend Mickey Hamilton had gotten drunk and decided that plowing a fist into Vern’s chin made a kind of sense. Vern had just flown his helicopter down into the critical death zone. Helicopters that broke between fifty and four hundred feet above the ground were in an exceptionally bad place—too high to safely crash and too low to stabilize and autorotate in. A glance out the window didn’t improve the news. The Mount Hood Aviation firefighters’ airfield was still two miles ahead. Below him was nothing but a sea of hundred-foot fir trees covering rugged, thousand-foot ridges. So screwed! Meanwhile, the more rational part of his brain—that the US Coast Guard had spent six years investing so heavily in training and that four more years of flying to wildfire had honed—was occupied with checking his main screen on the helicopter’s console. He located the flashing, bright red warning. Hydraulic failure in the primary circuit. He smelled no burning rubber or hot metal. Several things happened simultaneously. The first thing was being seriously ticked off that the helicopter was trying to kill him. Vern had been type-certified in the massive, ten-thousand-pound firefighting helicopter for precisely thirty-two hours and—a glance at the console clock—seventeen minutes. It simply wasn’t fair to be killed on his second day flying this sweet machine. The second thing that happened was he actually read the flashing message: #2 PRI SERVO PRESS. The backup hydraulic-pressure warning system wasn’t reporting any problems, which meant it was still running to cover the failure of the #2 pump’s pressure. Vern double-checked. No secondary alarm. He wiggled the cyclic joystick control with his right hand, which altered the pitch of the blades to control his direction of flight. His helo wiggled exactly as it should. The back pressure of the controls against his dry palm felt normal. He tried restarting his breathing. That worked as well. Then—with the practice of a hundred drills that had felt like a thousand under MHA’s chief pilot Emily Beale’s watchful eye—his left hand came off the collective control alongside his seat long enough to grab the correct circuit breaker among the eighty other breakers, switches, and controls that made up the overhead console attached to the helo’s ceiling. He pulled on the breaker that shut down the #2 Primary Servo pump. The alarm went silent, and the blinking red warning on the screen shifted to a steady red glow. Then his hand returned to the collective, completing everything that needed doing. The third thing that happened—all in the same moment, as far as he could ever recall—was the thought that Denise Conroy, Mount Hood Aviation’s chief mechanic, was going to kill him even if the helicopter had decided not to. Breaking one of Denise’s birds on his second day flying it solo and expecting to survive unscathed was downright foolhardy. The pilots generally agreed that upsetting the head of MHA’s helicopter maintenance team was not to be considered a life-prolonging experience. Nor was disappointing Emily Beale, who had only certified him in the Firehawk yesterday morning. The four years he’d flown the tiny MD 500 for MHA wouldn’t count for squat if he dinged up their newest twenty-million-dollar bird. He followed the other two Firehawks back into camp. The three of them together were the massive Type I juggernauts of the helitack firefighting world, able to deliver a thousand gallons of water and foam or retardant to a wildfire. Only a few helicopters could carry more, and those were all far less agile machines. This helo ruled the wildfire airborne sweet spot. The Mount Hood Aviation Firehawks were painted gloss black, and with the red-and-orange racing flames of the MHA logo running from the nose down the sides, they looked as cool and powerful as they truly were. The Firehawks were built from Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopters. Each one was an eight-foot-high, ten-foot-wide, and forty-foot-long nasty-looking machine. Black Hawks, no matter how prettily painted, always appeared to be looking for a fight. They were the tough boys on the block, though the two in front of him were flown by women: Emily, ex-military and kind of terrifying, truth be told, and Jeannie, one of the most competent and prettiest fliers he’d ever met. How in the hell had Cal the photographer guy snapped her up? Jeannie was awesome. Not that they’d ever done more than fly together—it wasn’t like that between them—but seeing her look so damn happy emphasized how totally lame his own relationships had been. Closing his eyes for a moment, Vern braced himself. Stepping on the rudder pedal, he twisted the tail of the five-ton rotorcraft to the side, then shifted the cyclic joystick in his right hand to compensate. Again, it felt completely normal, proving that the backup hydraulic system was indeed operational, yet his breathing still sounded harsh over the headset and microphone system he wore. He remained in formation with the other helos but now flew mostly sideways in order to look behind him. He opened one eye. A cloud of black smoke was streaming from his helo. No sign of a fire warning on the instrument panel, so it was the burning of hydraulic fluid that had spilled before the pressure loss was detected and he’d shut down the pump. They were under a minute from Mount Hood Aviation’s Hoodie One base camp. Not enough time to burn everything off. Thankfully none of the fumes—nasty, astringent stuff—had leaked into the cabin. Vern realigned the controls to once again face forward and retain his position in the flight. He also managed to convince his breathing that he was back in control. The MHA airfield and base camp perched low on the northern side of the towering mass of Mount Hood—eleven thousand feet of dormant, mostly, ice-capped volcano. The airfield was easy to miss among the towering fir trees and the vibrant yellows and reds of September aspens and maples. It was the end of day, so the mountain’s shadow already lay long across the camp, and the grass airstrip was not empty like he’d hoped. The four smaller helos of MHA’s seven-bird fleet had already returned, parked along the north side of the strip close to the towering Douglas fir trees that defined that side of the base. Pilots and ground crew were milling around them. Along the other side of the field were the low buildings of the long-defunct kids’ summer camp that MHA had taken over. Though much of the structures’ dark wood was covered with green moss, like so much else in the Pacific Northwest, the buildings were dry and warm inside. But were the other pilots, ground crew, and smokejumpers tucked away safe and warm? No such luck. They seemed to think that because it was a beautiful, late-September afternoon, everyone should be out at the cluster of picnic tables that served as the camp’s main hangout. As he neared, he could see the dots of their bright faces turning like damned daisies following the sun—all tracking the path of his smoking flight. And sure enough, the nightmare awaited. There at the end of the row of four already-parked helos and the two smokejumper delivery planes was the maintenance truck. In front of the truck stood five-foot-four of livid woman with dark blonde hair down her back—her feet planted as if part of the mountain’s basalt shield. Though not close enough to see, he knew she’d be standing with her arms crossed over one of the nicest chests he’d ever seen. He could feel the burn of her glare at a thousand yards out. Vern followed the other two Firehawks in for a landing, Denise coming into focus as he approached. Jeans, t-shirt, and a canvas vest that had once been beige before it spent years being worn around broken helicopters. She wore a tool belt like an Old West gunslinger. Damn, she was gorgeous and cute at the same time. And about the most unapproachable woman he’d ever met. A single drop of salty sweat dripped into his eye and stung. He sniffed the air again—no smell of fire other than the bit of wood char that was always picked up flying over a wildland fire. A glance back as he hovered, spun into place, and set his bird down on the markers. Yep, still smoking black. Denise was going to do more than kill him; that would be too kind. She was going to outright annihilate him. He hoped that she at least waited until after he was done landing before she did so. “What did you do to my poor bird?” Denise Conroy heaved open the cargo bay door and spoke to Vern Taylor’s back in the pilot seat. She reached up and pulled down on the gust lock in the middle of the rear cabin’s ceiling. That would keep the rotor blades from turning unexpectedly once she climbed atop the helicopter to check the engine. “Broke it,” was his sassy reply. “I guessed that much. Confirm ignition key in the off position,” she called out though she could see forward between the seats to the center console that it already was. Outside the front windscreen she could see Mickey and Bruce pressing their faces up against the windscreen and making funny faces at Vern, blowing out their cheeks like puffer fish or three-year-olds. “Confirm off and out.” Vern pulled the key free and dropped it on the center console of radios that ran between the pilot and copilot’s seats. Then he gave the finger to his juvenile buddies who laughed and moved on. She made a mental note to wash the outside of the pilot’s side windscreen—while wearing gloves. She stepped back outside, slid the big door shut with perhaps a bit more force than she should have, and climbed on top of the Firehawk helicopter using the notches built into the section of the helicopter’s hull that had been covered by the door. Denise began peeling off the cowling of the Number Two turbine engine, being careful of the still blazing-hot exhaust. She could feel the radiant heat on her cheeks as soon as the sheet metal was shifted aside. The stink of scorched, high-temp phosphate hydraulic fluid made her glad for the slight breeze that was wafting it away. She pulled on goggles and neoprene gloves so that the acidic fluid wouldn’t splash in her eyes or sting her hands. The cause of the failure was instantly apparent from the spray pattern. The side of a hose had split and shot out a broad fan of pressurized fluid. Part of it had puddled, and the rest of it had struck the engine and been vaporized. Vern finished filling out his log as if everything was absolutely normal before climbing down from his seat. “You do know, Vern, busting a bird when you’ve had it less than two days puts you on my bad list for sure.” Denise jerked out a wrench to loosen the blown hose, but in her nervousness, she scattered several other tools as she did so. She gathered them back up as quickly as she could. How had she dared speak that way to a pilot? Vern didn’t sound the least bit put out by her tone. “The few, the proud, the helitack firefighter pilots of MHA. We’re all in the crapper with you, Wrench. How are we supposed to fly to fire without using your helicopters? That’s the puzzle, isn’t it?” She shifted her scowl from the engine and aimed it down at him. Vern leaned with his back against the pilot’s door of the helicopter, staring off into the distance as if completely unconcerned about the midair breakdown and oblivious to her conflicted emotions. It was her fault that the pilot had been placed in danger. And Vern was teasing her about it. He was tall enough that the top of his head was close enough for her to swing down and rap it sharply with the wrench in her hand, which might cheer her up a bit. But he wasn’t the problem, so she rammed the wrench back into her tool belt, knocking a few other tools loose that she then had to retrieve from the helicopter’s innards.

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