Hot Shots Men of Fire #3 - Never Too Hot - Bella Andre Page 0,1

prove his worth to the Forest Service when he got back to California after Sam's wedding.

He was here to renovate his great-grandparents' one-hundred-year-old log cabin, to work such long, hard hours on it that when he slept he would outrun his nightmares, the god-awful reminders of the day he'd almost died on the mountain in Lake Tahoe.

He was here to be alone. Completely alone.

And no matter what he had to do, he was going to find the inner calm, the control that had always been so effortless, so innate before the Desolation fire.

Turning away from the water, he stared back at the log cabin. The words POPLAR COVE were etched on one of the logs, the name his great-grandparents had given the Adirondack camp in 1910. He forced himself to look for its flaws, for everything he'd need to tear down and rebuild this summer. The paint was peeling beneath the screened-in porch on the front where the storms hit hardest. Some of the roof's shingles were askew.

But even as he worked to be dispassionate, he mostly saw the precision detailing his great-grandfather had put into the cabin a hundred years ago: the perfect logs holding up the heavy corners of the building, the smaller logs and twigs that framed the porch almost artistically.

Eighteen summers he'd spent in this cabin. Ten weeks every summer with Sam and their friends under the watchful but loving eyes of their grandparents. The only people missing were his parents. One time he'd asked his mother why they couldn't come too, but she'd gotten that funny, breathless, watery-eyed look that he hated seeing — the same look that she usually got when she was talking to his dad about his long work hours — so he'd dropped it.

He couldn't believe it had been twelve years since he'd stood here.

After signing up to be a hotshot at eighteen, Connor's summers had been full fighting wildfires. Any normal July 1st this past decade would have seen him in a west coast forest with a 150-pound pack on his back, a chain saw in his hand, surrounded by his twenty-man, wildland firefighting crew. But the last couple of years had been anything but normal.

Connor had never thought to see the word disability next to his name. Seven hundred thirty days after getting caught in a blowup on Desolation Wilderness and he still couldn't.

Still, even though he belonged in Tahoe beating back flames, as he stood on the sand, the humid air making his T-shirt stick to his chest, he felt in his bones how much he'd missed Blue Mountain Lake.

Heading back to his car, he grabbed his bag from the truck, slung it over one shoulder and headed for the steps off the side of the screened-in porch that stretched from one side of the house to the other.

Most of his indoor time as a kid had been spent on this porch, protected from the bugs and the rain, but open to the breeze. His grandparents had served all their meals on the porch's Formica table. He hadn't cared that his teeth had chattered on cool mornings in early summer while he downed a bowl of Cheerios out there. He and Sam had lived in T-shirts and swim shorts regardless of the cold fronts that frequently blew in.

One of the porch steps nearly split beneath his foot and he frowned as he bent down to inspect it. Guilt gnawed at his gut as he silently acknowledged that his grandparents could have hurt themselves on these stairs. He should have come out here in the off-season, should have checked to make sure everything was okay. But fire had always come first.


Something grated at him there, so he reminded himself that the bones of the log cabin were sound. He'd heard the stories a hundred times of how his great-grandfather had cut each one of the logs himself from the thick forest of pine trees a half mile from the lake. Still, time took its toll on every building eventually, no matter how well constructed.

Taking the rest of the stairs two at a time, ready now to see what other problems awaited him inside, Connor reached for the handle on the screen door.

But instead of turning it, he stopped cold.

What the hell?

A woman was dancing in front of an easel, swinging around what looked like a paintbrush, white cables dangling from her ears as she sang in a wildly off-tune voice. Every few seconds she dipped into her paint and