Authors: Sloane Meyers
Tags: #Contemporary, #Romance, #Fiction, #Paranormal, #Bear, #Werebear, #Adult, #Erotic, #Shifter, #Mate, #Firefighter, #Wildfire, #Sexy, #Boyfriend, #Secret, #Risk, #Smokejumper, #Beast, #Nurse, #Dreams, #Biggest Desire, #Tough Times, #Crashes, #Run Away, #New Life, #Rethink, #Future, #Intersects Past, #Past Demons, #Heartache, #Lonely, #Scared
Zach stood outside the pizzeria, and watched as Mindy drove away. He didn’t know whether he should be angry at her or at himself. He’d quickly progressed from agreeing to this lunch as a way to get rid of Mindy, to thinking maybe they could actually be friends, to asking her to be his freaking girlfriend. What the hell was wrong with him?
He didn’t know what had come over him, but he felt quite unsettled by the adrenaline rush he got every time he spoke with Mindy. No doubt remained in his mind anymore—she was his fated lifemate. It didn’t make any sense to him, but it was obvious from the strong, unshakable attraction he felt. Every time he was around her, his bear begged to bond with her.
But after the way she had rejected him, he also had no doubt remaining in his mind that he and Mindy would never actually be together. He had taken one small chance on her, and had been totally rebuffed. She didn’t believe his apology, and she didn’t seem to even believe that he could change.
He felt his heart breaking, but, as far as he could tell, there was only one option left for him. He would do what he had been planning to do before his ill-fated decision to ask Mindy to lunch—pack up his duffel bag and leave. He had become a burden to his crew, and, in addition to that, if he stayed here now then he would be forced to constantly see the lifemate he could never actually have. All of this, on top of the fact that it was starting to look like he would never find his long-lost cub, had become too much for Zach to handle. It would be better for everyone if he just left. Himself included.
Zach got back into his truck, and headed toward base with a heavy heart. He hated to say it, but he almost envied Mindy and her inability to have a child. It seemed like a better option than having a child but never being able to see him or her. He could feel anger bubbling up in his stomach. He had never been a violent person, but his bitterness had grown to the level that he thought it might be best if he never found Traci. He didn’t think he could trust himself not to turn into a ferocious bear around her, out only for blood.
Zach took a few deep breaths to try to calm himself. He had to think about something else, so he started mentally going over in his mind the list of things that he wanted to pack and take with him when he left the crew. He tried to mentally winnow it down, so that he could keep his packing as light as possible. By the time he got back to base, he was sure he could fit his whole mental list into one large duffel bag. He hopped out of his truck, and started toward the bunkhouse, almost excited for the prospect of a new life that stretched out in front of him. But he’d only walked about ten feet when Trevor came running around the corner of the hangar at full speed.
“Zach, where have you been? Get your gear together!” Trevor said. “We just got a call from headquarters. They’re sending us out to a fire in Southern California.”
“What?” Zach asked, startled. “We’re barely into March. How is it hot enough already for a fire?”
“Well, you know the drought is just as bad down there as it is up here, so everything is abnormally dry,” Trevor said. “Combine that with the fact that they’re having a heat wave down there, and that an idiot camper still thought it would be okay to leave a campfire unattended, and you have, quite literally, the perfect storm. I guess the guy thought that he was far enough out that nobody would catch him lighting an illegal fire. Well, now his fire is not only out of control, but it’s way too deep in the wilderness for any vehicles to get there or for a ground crew to reach.”
Zach stood staring at Trevor. “Are you sure? I’ve never heard of a smokejumping crew being called in this early in the year.”
Trevor looked at Zach like he was a crazy person. “Yes, I’m sure. Why would I be making this up? Get your butt in gear and start getting ready. The plane’s going to be here to pick us up in three hours.”
Trevor jogged off, shaking his head. Zach watched him leave, and tried to figure out what to do. He had been all ready to walk out the door, but he felt it was unfair to force his crew to take on a job short a crewmember without any notice. After considering the situation for a few moments, he decided that the only way to really do right by his crew was to go on this last mission with them. When he got back, he would tell them he was leaving. Odds were that there wouldn’t be another fire for a while after this one, so they should have plenty of time to prepare for taking on the next wildfire without him.
Zach strode into the hangar to make sure his gear was ready, even though he already knew that it was. He had checked and double checked it several times, and now his overabundance of caution was paying off. The rest of the crew was already in the hangar, running around and making last minute preparations. Zach smiled sadly at the sight of the crew going into action. They might all have their differences here and there, but when it was time to get down to business, they all knew how to work together as a team. He was going to miss these guys when he was gone.
Zach shook off the feelings of sadness, and jumped in to help with last minute preparations. There would be time to wallow in grief later. Right now, he had one last job to do with his crew.
A few hours later, Zach joined the rest of the smokejumpers as they climbed into a twin otter aircraft, and the pilot took off due south. Feelings of nostalgia overwhelmed Zach as he watched the hangar he had called home for the last year become smaller and smaller as the plane flew higher and farther away. He closed his eyes, and tried to focus on something else, like what he would do for work as soon as he left the crew and gave up his job. Maybe he would head up to the Pacific Northwest, and take a bartending job at some small bar in a sleepy town on the coast. He could start over where no one knew him. The idea of never being judged for who he was or what his past held sounded overwhelmingly appealing to him. And yet, even as he tried to fill his mind with images of himself hiding out in a small coastal town, he couldn’t completely push away with the snapshots of Mindy that kept popping up in his mind’s eye. By the time the plane reached the drop site, Zach’s mood had plummeted. He did his best, though, to at least act like everything was okay. Maybe Mindy was unwilling to accept that he could change, but he truly believed that he could. He would make a real effort during this last mission not to fly off the handle at his crew. He took a deep breath as he looked over at his alpha, and saw Ian nod at him.
“Door!” Zach called out, and then started opening the jump door of the plane. A rush of cold wind came in to the aircraft as Zach pulled on his jump helmet and fastened the strap. Even though the temperature on the ground was hot, the air at an altitude of nine thousand feet still felt fresh.
“Gear up!” Ian said, and the rest of the crew started buckling their helmets and checking the straps on their parachute rigs. Zach grabbed the colorful paper streamers that the crew used to determine wind direction. He stuck his head out the door of the plane and watched as the trees went rushing by below him in miniature. He loved how tiny everything looked from up here, and how sticking his head out of the airplane to watch it all zoom by made him feel like he was flying. Another small detail of this job that he was going to miss.
Zach threw several streamers down in quick succession, watching them carefully as they floated down to the earth.
“Looks like there’s no wind to speak of,” Zach said. “You know what that means—there’s not going to be much wind to slow you down on your landings, so be extra careful when you’re coming in. Try extra hard to avoid the trees.”
Ian stuck his head out the door with Zach, to assess the situation, then looked over at Zach to nod his confirmation.
“We’ve got our spot,” Zach said. “Let’s go!”
The crew lined up, and one by one began hurling themselves from the door of the airplane. First Trevor, then Hunter, and then Charlotte jumped. The plane had gone too far at that point, so the pilot circled around to do a second pass. When they got back over the jump spot, Luke jumped first. Zach got in position in the door after him. He would jump, and Ian would follow him, leaving the plane last.
Zach watched as Luke fell away from the plane, counted out five seconds, and then hurled himself into the open air. The jumping part of this job had become so routine for him that he didn’t feel much adrenaline anymore. He arched his back to stabilize himself against the wind, and then paused for a moment to look at the burning horizon as he fell. He was trained to pull open his parachute as soon as he had stabilized, but today he couldn’t resist the temptation to wait for several extra seconds. Since he was traveling toward the earth at about a hundred and sixty miles an hour, it didn’t take long for those extra seconds to bring him dangerously close to the earth. He had heard people describing ground rush, which, just like it sounded, meant the feeling of watching the ground rush up toward you as you fell without a parachute. The feeling could be alternatively exhilarating or terrifying, depending on your personality, and, of course on why exactly there wasn’t a parachute over your head. If you were freefalling by choice, because you wanted the exhilarating, dangerous feeling of getting too close to the earth, you’d obviously be a little less freaked out than if your plummeting was unintentionally caused by difficulties in opening your parachute.
Zach had intentionally chosen not to open his parachute, but it wasn’t because he was looking for some exhilarating feeling. He had just found himself wondering, at five thousand feet above the ground, what it would be like to collide with the earth and then feel nothing. He fantasized about how freeing it would be for all of the heartache he dealt with to disappear into oblivion in an instant. Then he saw, out of the left corner of his eye, Luke, with a fully open parachute. When Zach flew past Luke in a rapid descent, that’s when he snapped out of it. No matter how hopeless he felt things were, he couldn’t leave his crew with this kind of mess. Having to deal with a clan member dying so horrifically was too much to ask of them. Zach reached back, and pulled the handle of his parachute. The last few seconds before it inflated he watched with widened eyes as the treetops came impossibly close. He heard the loud sound of a woman’s voice screaming, and he realized that Charlotte must be on the ground, freaking out as she watched him plummeting down far too quickly.
He felt his parachute jerking him upwards as it inflated, slowing him to a floating speed moments before he crashed into a tangle of branches and leaves. He felt a searing pain on his left hand, and looked down to see a line of dark red blood oozing from his palm. He winced, and forced himself to slowly move each one of his limbs. Everything felt a little stiff, but, as far as he could tell, nothing was broken.
He started loosening the straps of the container that held his parachute to his back, covering everything in blood as he did. He glanced at his hand again. The cut was bleeding quite a lot, but it didn’t seem to be that deep. Hopefully, he’d be able to easily patch it up with a first-aid kit.
After he loosened all the straps, he wriggled out of his rig and threw it down to the ground. There were probably going to be some holes in his parachute that needed mending, but it’s not like it mattered. This was going to be his last mission, anyway. He unfastened the large bags of gear strapped to him until they were no longer attached to his jumpsuit, and threw those down to the ground as well. Then he unzipped the large cargo pockets on his jumpsuit, and pulled out a coil of rope that was stowed there to assist with inevitable tree landings.
But before Zach could get the rope fully out and attached to a secure tree branch, Charlotte had arrived at the bottom of the tree.
“Oh my god,” she yelled up. “What happened? Are you okay? I really thought for a minute there that I was about to see you die.”
Even from his faraway vantage point at the top of the tall tree, Zach could see the tears streaking down Charlotte’s face, and he felt guilty. Charlotte had a good heart, and, although she was human, it was obvious that she would never dream of being anything but loyal to anyone on the crew.
“I’m fine,” Zach yelled back down. “Hang on, I’m coming down.”
He tugged on the rope to make sure it was fastened securely, and then used it to shimmy his way down through the tree branches and to the ground. As soon as he set his feet on the ground, Charlotte wrapped him in a big hug.
“That was one of the scariest moments of my life,” she said.
“Sorry. I’m okay,” Zach said. “I just lost altitude awareness or something.”
One of the dangers of parachuting that the crew had been trained to avoid was losing altitude awareness. They had been instructed to always keep an eye on the altimeters they wore on their wrists, which told them how high they were. If, for any reason, they got below a certain altitude, they were trained to pull the parachute even if they hadn’t yet stabilized against the wind. Usually, this wasn’t an issue for the smokejumping crew. It typically only took a few seconds to stabilize, and that still left them plenty of altitude to open a parachute.
But Charlotte bought Zach’s excuse and nodded sympathetically. “Don’t feel badly,” she said. “Even the most experienced jumpers have been guilty of losing altitude awareness.”
Ian walked up at that moment, a huge frown and look of concern on his face. “I call bullshit,” he said. “What the hell is going on with you? Because whatever you thought you were trying to do there, it wasn’t funny.”
Charlotte looked back and forth between Ian and Zach with an expression of confusion on her face. “What do you mean?” She asked.