Home > Burn Zone (Hotshots #1)

Burn Zone (Hotshots #1)
Author: Annabeth Albert

Chapter One

   Six years ago, September

   “Fucking wind.” Linc had been shit out of luck plenty of times in all his years fighting wildfires, but being quite literally up a tree, dangling like a puppet, never got any easier to stomach.

   “Hang tight, buddy. I’ve got you.” Retrieving the cargo that had dropped along with the members of their smoke-jumping crew, Wyatt prepared to climb up after him.

   Linc had been treed, parachute tangled in the branches of a massive pine, when the wind had pushed him off course. Even his years of skilled landings under pressure-filled circumstances hadn’t been enough to keep him out of the tree.

   It wasn’t his first time being treed and probably wouldn’t be the last time Wyatt had to save his bacon. That was the nature of their work on the front lines of forest fires—they’d saved each other’s lives so many times, he’d lost track of the number, but never lost sight of this feeling, being helpless, waiting for his best friend to come bail him out again.

   “Careful,” Linc called when a branch creaked as Wyatt started his ascent. “No stupid risks. May’s counting on me returning you in one piece.”

   The fire season was winding down, lots of equipment checks and inventory for next year, and the occasional jump like this one, checking on reports of some spot fires from lightning strikes. Their job was to do what was necessary to prevent the spread of fire—hand digging lines, clearing brush, felling trees.

   “She wasn’t happy, having to take me this morning.” Wyatt’s voice was more strained than usual. Linc couldn’t tell whether it was from the climb or the mention of May, who was pregnant with their first kid and had been full of worries all season long, the stress of being married to a smoke jumper getting to her. “Stupid truck’s acting up again. She’s on me to trade it in, get a four-door that can handle a car seat.”

   “Not a bad idea. Get me free from this mess and I’ll come take a look at it tomorrow, see if I can get you running again for the short-term.”

   “Appreciated.” Wyatt’s tone was still clipped. Linc couldn’t see him now, and he knew better than to twist too much. One wrong move and he could end up plummeting to the ground, which was enough of a drop to break some bones.

   Ordinarily, Linc would be more proactive in getting free, but he’d tangled in a way that he couldn’t get to the knife that was an essential part of their gear. Instead, he had to wait for Wyatt to reach him, trust that Wyatt wouldn’t send him crashing through the branches, and that Wyatt would have enough sense to keep his own self safe. May—and Wyatt’s mother, whom Linc loved almost as much as the memory of his own—would never forgive Linc if Wyatt went home with a broken leg or worse.

   Working together this season was like shrugging into his favorite work jacket, worn and familiar, both of them more experienced this go-around. While Wyatt had stayed local after graduation, Linc had been gone as much as he’d been home, gaining experience on fire crews all across the West before finally duty called him back, roots as unavoidable as taxes. That Wyatt and this crew had been waiting was more than a reward for everything else he was dealing with.

   Finally, though, he was free enough to grab Wyatt’s hand, then use all his upper body strength to pull himself over the branch. Working together, they freed the chute. It was way too valuable and essential to their work to leave in the tree, so he breathed a little easier when it fluttered to the ground. Then they started their descent, tricky because of the weight of both of them. It was an old, sturdy tree, but Linc’s attention remained on red alert for potential dangers until they were both on the forest floor.

   Time to get to work, packing up the chute and rejoining the rest of the crew, digging fireline by hand, the wide dirt trails used to keep back any potential fire spread, until his arm and back muscles burned. This mission at least didn’t involve an overnight in the forest, but it did have a long, arduous pack-out where they had to haul themselves and all their gear several miles to an extraction point.

   “Careful!” Wyatt thrust an arm out right when Linc would have tripped over a large tree root. The others were some distance behind them, Wyatt setting a bruising pace as per his usual.

   “Damn. You saved me. Again.” Linc shook his head. They had been through hell and back, everything from fiery infernos side by side to pristine mountain mornings. Even in the years when Linc had been away for long stretches, they’d still shared every catastrophe and triumph from wading pools to wedding bells for Wyatt and every major life event in between. “What do I owe you?”

   It was an old joke between them, but Wyatt’s face darkened, eyes narrowing, voice hard. “Stay away from my little brother.”

   Fuck. Linc should have seen this coming, should have known that Wyatt had something more on his mind than May’s worries. He’d probably been stewing all day, waiting to bring this up. That was how Wyatt got, even back when they were kids. He’d brood and brood and then his temper would flare.

   “Me? What would I want with him?” Stopping, he turned to face Wyatt. If they were going to do this, he wasn’t going to let Wyatt lecture over his shoulder like Linc was some ornery kid on a scout hike being called to task.

   “Don’t play dumb with me. I know you. Wasn’t that me who didn’t say a damn word when you took the number of that bartender New Year’s Eve?”

   Linc swallowed hard. He’d lay down his life for Wyatt, but he also wasn’t going to let his best friend push him around either.

   “Who I’ve taken to bed has zero to do with your brother. Zilch.” On that point, he could be firm. That Wyatt disapproved went without saying—they might be brothers of the soul, but that didn’t mean they always saw eye to eye. His skin prickled, old wounds he tried his damnedest to ignore.

   “Fuck yes, it does. He came out. Told the whole damn family yesterday at Sunday dinner that he’s gay.”

   “Bet that took some balls, standing up to all of you.” Somehow Linc managed a steady tone even as he wondered what in the hell Jacob had been thinking, coming right out and announcing that to his large, boisterous family which wasn’t exactly known for open-mindedness, especially among the brothers. “Good on him, but again, nothing to do with me.”

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