Never Too Hot
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“What happened? How did the fire change into something worse?”
It was the question he'd asked himself a thousand times. “The wind must have shifted. Dropped a spark. Logan saw it first, realized we were on top of the fire. First thing you teach a rookie, fire goes up. Ninety-nine percent of the time it'll outrun you. Logan should have saved himself. Instead he hiked down the hill to get me and Sam. Told us to drop everything and start running.”
Jesus, he still remembered that moment so well. He was running his chain saw through a huge clump of dry brush, his entire focus on blade cutting through wood. From the corner of his eyes he thought he saw Sam waving his arms and cut his engine. Sam put his chain saw down and said two words. “A blowup?” Logan nodded and without saying anything more, the three of them started running straight up a near-vertical slope.
“We were swallowing dirt and sparks, running through piles of white ash. I started coughing and they slowed to make sure we stayed together, but even then we still thought we were going to sit around with the guys and laugh about it at the bar that night.”
His breath came fast. Sweat started to drip between his pecs.
Ginger was squeezing his hand, now, and the feel of her soft skin against his helped to calm him, to bring him back into the cabin, into the bedroom where he'd almost lost control with her.
She'd been so silent he'd forgotten she was there. But now that he remembered, he knew that if he pulled her against him and kissed her again he could stop talking, could make her forget all about his story, could maybe even forget for a few minutes himself.
He took in her soft skin, her luscious curves, her curls falling around her shoulders, and was tempted, so incredibly tempted to taste her again. Sex would be easier than talking, so much more direct and to the point, so much less dangerous than this spark of deeper connection.
But the part of his mind that could still think straight — the part that wasn't completely hypnotized by her scent, by the feel of her hand on his — knew it would only be a temporary respite.
Because as soon as they were done, as soon as they'd had their fill, she'd come at him with her questions again.
“The wind whipped up and it was like looking straight into a wall of fire.”
“I can't imagine,” she whispered.
“No. You couldn't. And then the flames reached out and grabbed me, pulled me down.”
His name came out of Ginger's lips in a rush of emotion, her hand tightened on his.
“Sam and Logan were way out in front. They heard me fall. They came back for me.” He still couldn't believe they'd done it. “They came back for me.”
“Of course they did.”
“No.” The word was practically a roar. “They almost died. They should have gone on. Left me.” Instead they'd picked him up between them and run like hell. “Logan spotted a rock face just big enough for us to get over. In the end, the fire hit the rock and turned back on itself.”
He didn't remember much after that, knew he'd passed out, but he'd heard the nurses talking about him in the hospital as he went in and out of consciousness that first day.
“My turnouts had melted into my arms. The doctors ended up taking off most of it in sheets.” From his elbows down, his skin had been stripped away. He pointed to the tops of his thighs. “They took most of the new skin from my legs, just peeled it off like an apple.”
She looked down at the scars on his thighs. “I-” She stopped, swallowed hard enough that he could hear it. “I hadn't noticed those scars.”
His mouth twisted. “Everything they say about skin grafts is true. Hurts like a bitch.”
His arms and hands hurt less, probably due to the nerve damage. But his thighs where they'd harvested the new skin — that had been a bad couple of months. Anytime he moved or fabric brushed against his limbs he'd wanted to cry like a baby from the pain. The doctors had tried to get him to take the drugs, the painkillers, but he hated feeling foggy, like everything was in slow motion.
That was when the nightmares had started.
“Most people don't have the courage to consider being a firefighter in the first place,” Ginger said softly,
“let alone go back to it after something like that.”
Used to be, he'd eaten up people's admiration. Especially from beautiful women. He wasn't that guy anymore.
He shook her hand off. “You can save your praise. I haven't been out there in two years. The Forest Service has made sure of that.”
She took a step back in surprise. “But I thought you said-”
“I'm on my last appeal.”
Oh f**k, he hadn't believed it himself. Not until he'd just said the words aloud. This was his final chance to do the job he was born to do. And if they took it away from him, then what?
“They're afraid I'm going to freeze out there. Possibly kill myself, or worse, take out a civilian too.”
“But surely they can see how committed you are? How much you want it?”
It was the same thing he'd been telling himself, the reason he got up every morning at five and ran ten miles every goddamned day.
“Do they know about your nightmares? About your hands?”
He reached into his bag on the dresser, pulled on a pair of shorts. “What do you think?”
“No, I don't suppose I would tell them either if I wanted to get back on the job.” There was no judgment in her words, no pity either. Just understanding. “When are you supposed to hear about your appeal?”
He watched her tighten her robe around her waist, wanting her despite all the reasons to stay away. One more kiss. That was all it would take. And then they'd be on his bed and he'd be over her, sliding against her, into her, until they were both completely lost in each other's skin, and sweat, and sex, his nightmare forgotten for a few blessed seconds.
But after the way she'd listened to him, the comfort she'd given, she deserved better than a night of hot sex with some out-of-work firefighter who had random night terrors and hands that went from too much sensation to none at all.