Friday, May 30, 2008

Into The Heat by Kate Burns

"I've got the duty assignments for the next fourteen." Beck's heavy steel toe work boots sent a spray of gravel flying as he stopped beside the repair bench in the open-air shed. His eyes scanned the papers on the clipboard he held in his work-scarred hand for a moment before he cleared his gravelly voice and said, "Delia, you and Coop are assigned to the north ridge station. Usual drill ... brush clearing and piling, facility and trail maintenance. You don't need me to tell you what to do, you've done this before."

"When do you want us there?" Cooper asked, his words giving no hint to the way he felt about the assignment.

Already turning to leave, the facility manager stopped, his feet sending a new wave of grit around their ankles. His gaze swept over the two standing before him, their hands and tools stilled over their chainsaws. A muscle worked in the man's jaw, moving the maze of wrinkles around his eyes and on his forehead in small patterns while he openly appraised them. For a moment Delia thought he had something to say, something that he wanted to give voice to but couldn't bring himself to do. In the end, Beck shrugged his massive shoulders and said, "Up to you. Duty begins tomorrow. If you can pack your gear in time you can head up there tonight. If not, first thing in the morning."

Cooper said, "I can be ready tonight."

"So can I."

* * * *

Fourteen days. Two whole weeks. Alone. In a remote cabin in the middle of nowhere with Cooper Tallman.

Things could be worse.

It only took twenty minutes to pack her duffel and head out to the large black SUV but Cooper was there before her, his duffel packed into the cargo area beside an assortment of tools and foodstuffs. Delia tucked her bag beside his, closed the cargo door, and walked around to the passenger side. Climbing in beside him, she caught a whiff of the bar-and-chain oil they'd been using on their chainsaws before Beck found them. Not sure if it came off her or him, she let the edges of her lips curl upward.

Yeah, that'll curb any man's appetite for romance. The scent of oil, smoke, pine tar, and all the other less-than-feminine aromas that surround us. Not that this guy allows himself any appetites other than the ones that roar hotter than any I've got to offer. If Cooper's got a taste for anything romantic--with anyone, anywhere--he keeps it to himself.

"What's so funny?" he asked, shooting her a sideways glance as they pulled onto the black ribbon of pavement that they would use to get to the station. It wound through thousands of acres of forest in some of the remotest areas of the state and was used exclusively by the wild land firefighters. "Did I miss something?"

The grin grew as she shook her head. "Nothing, really. I guess I'm just happy to be going up to the north ridge. It's always been one of my favorites."

It was true. Nestled high on the ridge, the station looked more like a resort than an outpost for firefighters. A breathtaking view of the wooded valley gave it a prime advantage in that smoke could be seen for miles in all directions. There was also a small lake not far from where the station had been built, providing not only a good supply of emergency water but also a cool place to swim in the hot summer months.

"Mine, too," Cooper said, turning his eyes to the road. The woods were filled with the usual variety of animals and they both knew that they could just as easily find a black bear in standing before them as a red squirrel. With dusk approaching, the chance of animal movement increased substantially. Although it was still fairly light, Cooper turned on the headlights and slowed. "I'm glad we could make the trip now. Thanks for being ready to leave right away. It's better, I think, to get the drive over with tonight. That way we can get an early start tomorrow."