Authors: Helen Grey
By Helen Grey
Copyright © 2015 Helen Grey
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This is Part 3 of "Flaming Desire" – a five part Hot Alpha Billionaire Romance Series by Helen Grey.
After plunging to the forest floor during a helicopter crash, Jessica is stunned but has no time to care for her battered body. She’s on a mission and the fire demands her full attention. She can’t let her team down.
As Matt and Jessica work alongside hundreds of other wildfire fighters, they’re thrust into one dangerous situation after another. Worse, they’re losing the battle over the raging inferno. And to her horror, she’s also losing the battle over her growing feelings for the man working beside her.
Feelings Matt doesn’t want and refuses to accept.
This book is intended for a mature audience, 18+ only.
Oh my God—the jolt was horrendous, creating a brutal impact on every cell in my body. The nose of the helicopter rose up at an impossibly steep angle, this time flinging me back into my seat so fast and hard that my head slammed against the wall of the aircraft.
Pain blossomed, intense and thick, but I barely had time to register the damage. The Chinook rolled, this time to the opposite side. It hit something, throwing me forward again and metal screamed and screamed and screamed. It was the scariest sound I’d ever heard.
I think we might have rolled, but I couldn’t be sure. I felt myself thrown this way and that, only stopped by my seat belt and the strength of Matt’s arms around me. I heard nothing but screeching metal and the thwap-thwap-thwap of the rotors.
A scream erupted from my throat.
I didn’t want to die
! I closed my eyes, hung onto Matt’s arm for dear life as we were jostled this way and that in our seats. The aircraft righted itself. The forward momentum propelled us down. We were sliding on the belly of the craft, down a hillside, jolted every time the body of the chopper hit something.
Then, as quickly as all the turbulence had started, everything stopped. The helicopter was down, but had landed right side up. Other than the buzzing alarm from the cockpit, everything was silent. The motors had been shut down, or died. Then I smelled smoke, the eye-watering stench of burned wiring and spilled fuel. I opened my eyes and prayed.
“Open the door! Open the door!”
The voice came from a member of the Hotshot crew near the front of the craft. The pilot and the co-pilot emerged from the cockpit, or whatever they called it in a helicopter, and rushed through, asking if everyone was all right. Groans. Curses. A few affirmative replies.
Everyone was stunned. Beside me, Matt was swearing up a storm. I tried to speak but only a strange grunting sound erupted from my throat. My head hurt. My entire body hurt. I felt so relieved that I was alive that I didn’t care.
I was alive!
Matt was alive!
The next moment, Matt was out of his seat and unbuckling my seat belt. That jolted me out of my frozen state. I quickly rose from my seat and though my knees wobbled precariously, I stood. I quickly glanced at the firefighter who had been tossed to the back of the chopper. He was groaning now, moving around a bit. Thank God. He wasn’t dead.
The two Arizona crew members had risen from their seats, were huddled near the guy now, talking to him, assessing his injuries. Matt grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the door, which the pilot had just opened. The pilot ordered everyone out, yelling at us to move as quickly as possible. No one panicked, though to be honest I was still scared, still shaking. Matt followed several other firefighters out, then turned toward me, arms uplifted. I saw about a four-foot drop from the bottom of the doorway to the dirt below. I didn’t care.
I grabbed Matt’s hands and hopped down, my knees nearly giving way as I landed but I stayed on my feet. I resisted the urge to fall to the ground and kiss the dirt.
Oh my God. I prayed I would never experience anything like that again. Ever.
It took about an hour for me to stop trembling, but despite the harrowing ride and then the crash, I thanked God that nobody was seriously injured. The firefighter that had been thrown from his seat had thunked his head pretty hard on one of the metal struts of the plane, but he must have been awfully hard-headed because other than a gash on the back of his head, and a couple of broken ribs, he was conscious, talking and moving his fingers and his toes. He was damned lucky and he knew it. He laid still as directed, knew that he would need to go to the hospital and be checked out. He knew he would probably not be fighting this fire. He expressed his disappointment, but other than that, his spirits seemed good.
I think everyone was just glad to be alive. It was a miracle, really, that we had landed upright, that the helicopter hadn’t been smashed to smithereens into the side of the mountain. The pilot and co-pilot inspected the craft, trying to figure out what had gone wrong. I didn’t care. We had made it to the ground. I knew accidents like this happened, and despite the skill of these Chinook pilots, they couldn’t predict the unpredictable.
I knew the winds had probably had something to do with the accident, perhaps a sudden updraft coming off one of the mountainsides. It was hard to tell. That we had made it down was a testament to the calm and clear thinking of the pilots and their skill.
It took about twenty minutes for the fire truck and a transport vehicle to reach the crash site. Before I knew it, our duffel bags and backpacks had been unloaded from the Chinook and placed in the crew transport. The rest of the larger equipment and tools would be offloaded later, after the Chinook was stabilized on the side of the mountain, but that would be worked out later by accident investigators and other personnel.
Before we left the scene and stepped onto the crew transport truck that would take us the rest of the way to base operations, I stooped down and picked up a handful of dirt and put it in one of my pant leg pockets. I’m not exactly sure why, but I just felt compelled to do so.
No one said much of anything on the way to the base camp. I had a feeling that everyone was still stunned, as was I. I never wanted to go through something like that ever again.
As on the helicopter, I sat next to Matt. His presence was comforting. I wished more than anything that I could hug him, feel his arms wrapped around me, and we could go somewhere quiet, but that wasn’t possible. I wanted to be strong.
I was very hesitant to show any signs of weakness—emotional or otherwise—especially surrounded by so many men. I think we had all been scared shitless over what just happened, but I gave myself a mental shake. I couldn’t continue to focus on the accident, as harrowing as it had been. I needed to focus on what lay ahead.
The transport truck slowly made its way down the rutted, sometimes barely visible dirt trail along the mountainside. The way was rough, especially on my beat-up body. Still, I welcomed the bouncing and jostling of the truck. Even though it felt similar to the turbulence we’d experienced in the Chinook, just knowing that I was only a few feet from the ground rather than hundreds or thousands made a big difference in my mind.
The transport vehicle we now rode in looked something like an old converted school bus, only square in shape. Rows of seats on either side allowed two people to sit side by side. The side of the vehicle was painted a dark, olive green and I wondered if it was some kind of converted military transport vehicle. I guess it didn’t matter. I was just trying to keep my mind occupied, trying to put some distance from the near tragedy of the crashed helicopter ride in mind. Over and over, I replayed the incident, like a video set on repeat. I shut my eyes against it, but it kept playing.
Suddenly, I felt Matt’s hand on my thigh. I looked up at him as he gave it a gentle squeeze. I appreciated the gesture, and once again wished more than anything that we could go off by ourselves and have a little alone time.
The crash had left me shaken, no doubt about it, but I had to hold it back. I had to. The others were, at least it seemed so to me. They spoke quietly with each other, but Matt and I, sitting at the back of the transport vehicle, said nothing. What was there to say? I knew without a doubt that we both were glad to put the chopper behind us. I wondered briefly if he’d been as afraid as me. I had seen the brief look of fear in his eyes at one point, but other than that, he had kept his emotions to himself. I admired him for his control.
I wanted to cry right now, to release some of the pent-up adrenaline still racing through my veins. Perhaps Matt understood that, and that was why he had placed his hand on my thigh. To let me know that he got it. Once again, I felt overwhelmed by his soothing presence.
By the time we reached the base camp which was bustling with activity—personnel from the multiple government agencies, and transport trucks moving crew and equipment into and out of the camp—I had worked hard to put my game face on. I think I succeeded. As we disembarked from the transfer vehicle, I saw a myriad of trailers and tents set up. The tents were huge, military style, many of them with one or more of their sides rolled up.
The trailers, which looked like construction trailers or small mobile homes, were put to use as kitchens, offices, communication centers, and first aid stations. As soon as I stepped off the transport truck and got a whiff of air, I coughed. Everything was heavy with the smell of smoke.
The incident command post was directly ahead of us. I could tell it was the command post because the sides were plastered with maps. There were all kinds of maps—topographical, some with circled and filled-in red zones that defined the location of the fire, weather maps, and public and Forest Service access roads. You name it. They had a map for it.
A myriad of lists, printed in black marker, filled poster boards. Long sheets of paper were also taped to the side of the trailer. Hotshot teams. Assignments. Locations of crews. Incident reports. Printed weather reports. The mobile command center was a hub of activity and those in charge of fire crews and services from multiple agencies were represented there.
I glanced around the camp and saw so many people, some of them wearing the dark blue T-shirts of Hotshot teams, others in yellow shirts and jackets, others in olive drab. It looked like personnel from every government agency was represented; Forest Service, National Park Services, Hotshot crews, state-based wildland firefighters, the Bureau of Land Management. Some I didn’t even recognize.
A mobile kitchen was set up in one of the trailers, the first aid station behind it. Huge tents under which sat dozens of long wood picnic-like tables would serve as the dining area for those lucky enough to return to camp for a hot meal and some sleep. The camp was a literal large-scale tent city, which could be taken down and deployed quickly to new areas as needed. The camp was in a constant state of activity and movement, changing in shape, size, and need along with the fire.
We all walked up to the command post trailer. Normally, I checked in with the person responsible for keeping track of personnel, but Matt, leading the way, checked us in with the man currently logging entries onto a sheet of paper attached to his clipboard. He told Matt that his team was already on the fire line, digging containment line, doing some back burning, and basically just holding the line on the southeast border of the mountain that rose in front of us. I could see the flames of the fire dancing and leaping from the backside of several mountain slopes, and knew that the crews on the fire lines would be doing their best to keep the fires from topping the ridges and blasting their way down this side of the slopes.
I knew that fires moved faster when traveling upslope, because ambient wind often flowed in an uphill direction. Add to that the heat and smoke rising from the same direction, and the fire often burned hotter. Once the fire reached a crest or the top of a hill, they tended to burn out. Nevertheless, topography also played a huge role in the progress of a fire. Slope was even more important. The steeper a slope, the faster a fire could travel. The slopes of the mountainsides around here were steep.
While Matt checked us in, I strode closer to the command center trailer and looked at the map of the fire. It looked like over thirty thousand acres had burned already, and the fire was zero-percent contained. I’m sure that the gusting winds out of the north had something to do with that, in addition to the hot, dry brush prevalent in the area, providing ample sources of fuel for the raging fire.
Everything around me was controlled chaos, but I knew better than to think that nobody knew what everyone else was doing. Despite the mass of people coming and going, firefighters, commanders, rescue personnel, forest service personnel, and even volunteers, I knew that everyone present would be assigned a specific task, if they hadn’t been already. Nothing was left to chance when it came to fighting wildfires.
“Impressive, isn’t it?”
I looked up and saw Matt standing beside me. I nodded in agreement. “Much like an ER department or the ICU, isn’t it?” He nodded, knowing exactly what I was talking about. It didn’t matter how chaotic everything looked. It didn’t matter how many people were milling around, sometimes getting in each other’s way. Everyone knew their job and they were focused on doing it. Working as a team, lives were saved. Working as a team, I knew that eventually this fire would also be contained. It might take a while, but it would get done.
We were directed to place our duffels and backpacks into one of the tents converted into sleeping quarters. I hesitated, wondering why the hell I had lugged all the stuff up here if we were just going to leave it in the tent anyway.
“Let’s just see what’s going on,” Matt suggested. “We can get our gear later if we need it, but it looks like they’ve got things pretty much under control in regard to equipment and tools. Maybe the fire line we’ll be working isn’t that far from camp and we won’t be sleeping under the stars—if we get a chance to sleep, that is.”
I said nothing, but shook my head. This camp was larger than many of the others I had experienced. In fact, during the last fire I had been out on, I had lugged my backpack just about everywhere with me, even out on the fire line, but I knew better than to question, especially on the first day on scene.
We waited for only a few minutes before we climbed into another crew truck with about half a dozen other firefighters, this truck smaller than the one that had brought us from the accident scene. Each of us grabbed one of the filled water canteens stored in a bucket just inside the door. Each had a thick band on the back that could be attached to a belt or a clip. We could then attach it to our pants any way we wanted.