Excerpt from BURNS SO BAD

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Jump thousand.

The familiar summer anthem of the smoke jumpers exploded through his head. Adrenaline flooded Rio Donovan’s body as he anticipated the exhilaration of dropping through the air as he threw himself out of the DC-3’s cabin and streaked towards Rail Mountain. Sixty seconds and two thousand feet.

God, he loved his job.

The plane pulled away with a roar, only half-drowning the whoops of his boys jumping out of the cabin behind him. Rio Donovan shot a sideways glance at his jump partner, angling his body away from hers. Christ, she was a cool customer. She watched the ground rushing up to meet them without so much as cracking a smile. He’d bet she’d already cataloged the burn area and mentally marked a half-dozen hot spots she’d rush to knock down as soon as they were on the ground. Gia Jackson was good. There was no doubt about that. She’d earned her place on Strong’s jump team. So he had absolutely no business noticing how the jump harness separated her breasts into two teasing mounds. She was one of his boys too and… not going there. Fifteen hundred feet to the ground and his next job. Focus, Donovan.

Look thousand.

The forest fire beneath belched a big ass plume of dark smoke on his right, the sideways drift half-obscuring the small speck of burned over meadow he was aiming for.  The drift streamers had to be down there somewhere, the red ribbons an X-marks-the-spot he wouldn’t see for at least another thousand feet. The meadow swung crazily as the wind buffeted him hard, twisting him in a circle before he got the spin under control and his boots down because he needed to get horizontal, fast. Feet first, straight up-and-down. A holler tore from his throat. Fuck, yeah. This was living.

Straightening his legs, he dropped below Gia. He weighed more than she did and he’d bet it killed her that he’d make the LZ first. He loved how competitive she was. Beating her to the landing zone would be fun.

Reach thousand.

Still mentally counting down, he tightened his grip on the rip cord.

Pull thousand.

And yanked hard.

And nothing. Not a goddamned thing. The lines twisted around the drag chute, turning his backup into a mess of flapping nylon and rope. Cursing, he took his eyes off the ground rushing up to meet him and eyeballed the tangled mess. That was okay, he thought, his hands already reaching for the utility knife strapped to his thigh. Cut it away and pull the reserve chute. Plenty of time. Still, he didn’t waste any seconds, sawing the sharp edge hard and fast through the ropes, because panicking was a luxury he couldn’t afford. Every second closed the distance between himself and the ground and dying hadn’t been part of his plans for today.

The tangled lines fell away, seeming to float next to him for a long second. He was bigger and heavier and the gravity really was a bitch. As soon as he pulled the reserve ripcord, however, he knew today wasn’t his day. Or it was his last day. Nada. The reserve chute didn’t fire and so now he was falling, not jumping, because he didn’t have a working chute.

The ground spun again in a crazy 360 and there was no good way to land this.

No way to pull out and demand a do-over.

He’d auger. Pancake. Die.

Flashes of memories raced through his heads, bright pops of had-beens, the places and people he’d loved. He’d done his fair share of loving and he had almost no regrets there. All he prayed now was that Jack and Evan wouldn’t let their adoptive mother see his body. She didn’t need to carry that kind of memory with her. A thought and a prayer and then he watched the ground rising up toward him, because if he was going out, he’d see the end coming. He had less than thirty seconds to live and to start dying.

 ~~~

Rio Donovan was falling.

The sheer impossibility of that truth hit her, but Gia Jackson hadn’t got where she was in life by refusing to accept the impossible. Her playful, sensual, Harley-riding computer genius of a partner who’d gleefully kicked her ass at every fire they’d jumped so far in this short season… was falling. To his death. His drag chute drifted away uselessly above him, tangled around a mess of lines, and she spotted no reserve chute. He’d have pulled the cord. She knew it. Instead of riding the toggles toward their landing zone, his big, leather-gloved hands were crossed over his chest. Gia couldn’t make out his gorgeous face behind his protective helmet, but he was head up, feet down, barreling toward the ground in a one hundred miles an hour free fall.

No one, not even the legendary Rio Donovan, could survive that kind of hit.

She was his goddamned jump partner—and he hadn’t called out or hollered. What the hell was he thinking? They were supposed to communicate. That was part of the plan. She’d enjoy rescuing his fine ass just so she could yell at him for the sheer stupidity of his giving it up move.

In order to do that, however, she had to get closer. She made a left-hand turn, curling up into a ball to drive her fall faster and close the distance between them.

“Problem, golden boy?” She had to yell to be heard over the wind’s roar as she gripped the toggles. Snatching Rio from mid-fall wouldn’t be a walk in the park. He outweighed her, plus she had to avoid tangling his arms and legs in her line.

Rio’s head snapped up. “Technical malfunction,” he drawled, like it was an everyday occurrence. His eyes stared into hers and this close she could just make out the long lashes he wielded like a weapon. She’d wondered before what it was like, seeing the world through Rio’s eyes. If he felt it, he never showed fear. She loved that about him. Nothing ever seemed to scare him. God, to face life like that would be a miracle.

“Need a hand?” She maneuvered closer.

“I’m open to suggestions.” His body hung there in the air relaxed, as if he wasn’t hundreds of feet from dying.

She looked down, scanning for the first two sets of jumpers. Add Rio’s weight to her own and she’d sink like a stone and getting too close to another chute would steal her air and drop them both on the other canopy. Killing three people today wasn’t part of her plan.

“Grab on,” she snapped, because she didn’t have his kind of patience.

God. Of course he hesitated.

“My boobs and I will survive the contact, I promise,” she snarled, correctly reading his hesitation. Now was no time to discover his inner gentleman.

Rio wrapped himself around her with an audible grunt. He might have said something, but she doubted it was thank you. Probably an order or a command, she decided, hauling hard on the toggles. There was no time to figure their descent out better. Face to face, he scissored his legs around her waist, pulling her tight. Despite two bulky jumpsuits and the yards of safety webbing, she swore she could feel the heat of him. There was definitely no missing his strength.

“Get your head out of my way.” She craned her head, trying to see around Rio’s helmet. He growled, but tucked his face against her throat. After all, now he was riding blind, trusting her to land them both safely. He might not have a choice, but she’d bet he hated the feeling. She liked being in control herself.

The ground spun below them, mixing up meadow with char and snags. The mountainside sprouted flames, first on her left and then on her right, as she faced them into the wind and steered for the LZ. The spotter in the DC-3 had warned the landing would be tricky. Sure enough, a blast of heat baked her face when she swung too close to the burn site and the air started to choke up with smoke. She adjusted her grip on the toggles, taking them westward.

“You sure about this?” he growled, sounding damned unhappy for someone who’d been about to die.

“You want me to dump your ass now?” she countered, correcting the chute’s trajectory.

“Hell.” His body tensed and she knew holding him was impossible if he decided to let go. “How much do you weigh, Jackson?”

She didn’t take her gaze off the LZ. She was off the landing zone by twenty yards right now and hanging them both up in a tree—when Rio didn’t have a safety harness—wasn’t her first choice. A hundred foot fall would just kill him more slowly than the free fall.

“You’re asking a lady her weight?”

She could feel his smoky chuckle in her ear. God. The things that chuckle made her think of were probably illegal in at least half the southern states. “You’re no lady, Jackson,” he said.

He was right. “I’m your jump partner.”

There. The clearing spun into view again and she steered hard. The guys on the ground had Oh, shit written all over their pusses because they knew a problem when they saw it. They scrambled, pulling in their chutes and making room. She’d bet the lack of next steps was killing them, because unless they sprouted a giant trampoline out of their asses, all they could do was wait and watch.

And it was almost over.

“We the last in to this party?” Having a wingman was unexpectedly useful because she couldn’t take her eyes off the ground.

Rio looked up, completely unconcerned. “Nope. We’re going to beat the last two jumpers if you hurry this up.”

“Got it.” She did too. She wasn’t letting him fall.

“Gia.” She couldn’t look at him now, but he had her full attention nonetheless. He made her name sound deadly serious. “You let me go if you can’t land us both. Promise me.”

Always a fucking gentleman. It was a good thing for him she played by a different code. She shifted, repositioning them, and the move pressed his chest against hers. Welcome to my late night date fantasies. “You’re my jump partner. You don’t fall on my watch.”

That was the truth. Landing tandem—without a safety harness—was a high-risk maneuver, but letting him falling simply wasn’t an option. He’d have done the same for her and they both knew it. That was what partners did. Too bad for him if he had an issue with her being female or having her girly bits squashed against his front. Rio was out of choices and he’d have to make do with her.

“Gia—” The way he said her name, she didn’t know it was a curse or a prayer.

So she gave him the truth. “I’ll kill you if you let go.”

The final seconds were a blur of holding on and braking hard. The ground swung left-right-left in a nauseating arc as she picked a point over Rio’s shoulder and drove them in. The muscles in her arms and back screamed at the doubled weight. But the chute held. Rio held. She bent her legs, getting ready to hit. Two broken legs would make her deadweight in this firefight. But as soon as her steel toes got close to brushing the ground, Rio pushed away, letting go and tucking into a roll. Perfect as always. Her boot clipped his shoulder—so sorry—and she caught his grunt as she slammed into the ground a few feet away.

He wasn’t dead.

Hallelujah.

If she’d been more of a church-going, praying person, she’d have cranked out a few verses of something, but instead she ran, chute flapping, slowing her momentum to the litany of thank Gods in her head.  The rest of the team moved in now that she and Rio were on the ground, whooping and high-fiving. Her head ran roll call, automatically taking stock of who had landed. Jack and Zay, Liam and Angel, Quinn and Van. Evan Donovan’s big arm grabbed her as she tore past him, swinging her effortlessly to a halt. “Nice job.”

Rio’s brother made those two words sound like a gold star and a Purple Heart.

She grinned at him. “My pleasure.”

Not dead. Rio took a moment to appreciate that glorious fact. Sure, he’d slammed his shoulder into the ground when he’d tucked and rolled, and Gia’s boot had clipped his shoulder as the chute dragged her further up the field, but the landing could—should—have been so, so much worse. He inhaled sharply. Control it.

His back on the ground, his ass planted hard, he stared up at the blue sky. If he didn’t inhale—which was almost an impossibility at the moment anyhow, as his lungs strained to get back up and working—he couldn’t even tell there was a twenty acre wildfire to his right demanding quick attention.

Good thing he loved his job.

He could feel the steel-toes headed his way—he’d bet the entire jump team was either high-fiving Gia or headed his way to ask What the fuck?—so he did a quick inventory. He’d be sore tomorrow—nothing new there—but a quick twitch said both arms and legs worked. Which was nothing short of a miracle. Of course, Gia was probably the most stubborn person he’d ever met, which was another miracle given the ability of his two brothers to hang on and not let go, and she’d made it damned clear that she wasn’t letting him fall.

Gia.

Letting go of Gia was the hardest damn thing Rio had done lately—and not because he’d been afraid of dying, but because she smelled like lemons and outdoors. He had no idea if she knew that, or if the scent was just Gia, but he got a contact high immediately when he was around her and those seconds wrapped in her arms were pretty unforgettable.

For many reasons.

He pushed himself into a sitting position, waved off the incoming team members and eyeballed the clearing. The last two jumpers were down, pulling in their chutes and pointing their boots towards the flames, ready to get to work.

Usually, he did the rescuing. Being on the receiving end was a new sensation, but hardly one he could refuse when the only other option was dying. He wasn’t fatally stupid.  He definitely owed Gia. So what did it say about him that he’d noticed how her breasts felt pushed up against his arm when he was in the middle of dying? He was fairly certain he’d remember her accidental touch for pretty much forever, which gave a whole new meaning to memories to last a lifetime.

He’d nearly died.

Shake it off, he reminded himself. Although the fire came first, some things needed to be said. She’d had his back. And his front. He was fairly certain though that Gia hadn’t been thinking about getting his rocks off while she’d steered them both to the ground. That had been his problem. He wanted to believe the insta-chemistry was an adrenaline-fueled response to almost dying, but he suspected it was more than that. He’d felt something for Gia from the moment she’d joined their team.

Once again… shake it off.

Halfway across the LZ, Gia popped her helmet off and clipped it to her belt. Despite the distance, it felt like some magic string connected him to her. She took a few questions from the rest of the team as she yanked off her helmet, but then she strode off, clearly ready to get down to the business of fighting fire. While he sat here on the ground like a dumbass, dazed and confused.  What the hell was wrong with him?

He picked himself up with a grunt, unbuckling his jacked harness. When he got back to base camp, he’d go over the entire pack. Misfires happened, but he didn’t like it. He’d packed that chute himself and Jack had checked it. Every inch of that line had been neatly and precisely folded. Just like always.

As if he’d heard Rio mentally call his name, Jack strode over. He’d got his chute off and his game face on. “What the hell happened up there?”

He slapped Rio on the back, his hand lingering a moment longer than usual. Apparently, Jack had done the math too and realized just how close to dying Rio had actually come.

“Malfunction.” Christ. He relived the moment when he pulled the rip cord and nothing happened.

Jack looked like he was entertaining the same thought. He jerked his head towards Gia, who was rolling up her chute. “She bailed your ass out.”

“Sure did.”

Jack frowned. “We’ll go over your chute when we’re back at base.”

His oldest brother approached safety with the kind of focus usually reserved for national security matters. Maybe that was because of the way they’d grown up. They’d been three young boys who’d met up on the streets of Sacramento and then stuck together. Given their youth, life had been hand-to-mouth, carving out an existence for themselves where they could. It had been Jack’s idea to take the last name Donovan. One more thing they could all share, he’d pointed out, and Rio and Evan had agreed. Even when the fine state of California had eventually tried placing them in separate foster homes, the Donovan brothers had stuck together. Always. After one too many runaway attempts, the three boys had been sent as a package deal to Strong.  They and Nonna had been a family ever since.

The concern written all over Jack’s face wasn’t a surprise, but Rio preferred to ignore it. It wasn’t as if he didn’t care about safety—after this last little free fall he absolutely cared—but he’d never gotten quite so worked up about it. He preferred to move forward. Dwelling on the past never helped.

Jack lent him a hand sliding the harness off. Rio didn’t need the assist—the chute lines were the issue, not the buckles—but Jack clearly needed to do something.

His brother paused, gear slung from his hands. “Are you hurt?”

No and that was another mark in the miracle column. “Not so much as a scratch. If you tell Nonna, I’ll kill you.”

Their adoptive mother didn’t need to know she’d almost lost one of them today. She understood the risks of what they did. Smoke jumping wasn’t for the faint of heart and, sometimes, good men got hurt. He was just damn fortunate he hadn’t joined their number today.

Because Gia Jackson hadn’t let go of him.

“We’re starting in five,” Jack said. He didn’t ask again if Rio was okay. They needed all hands on deck to knock down this fire and Rio had no intention of sitting this one out to commune with his inner self.

“Got it.” He turned around, scanning the clearing. Gia was on the side nearest the fire. Of course.

“She’s good,” Jack said quietly.

She was. She was also the first woman they’d brought on board. It wasn’t that the Donovans preferred to keep the team all-male—although it certainly made certain logistics like suiting up simpler—but there just weren’t that many women interested in jumping out of planes into the very center of a forest fire. And then hauling a hundred-plus pounds of gear around with them while they shoveled dirt onto twelve-foot flames. Maybe women were simply smarter than men. He grinned. Jack’s fiancée, Lily Cortez, would have agreed with that statement.

He strolled over to Gia, not sure what to say. The DC-3 pilot had dropped a crate of supplies for them and she was checking out a chainsaw. She’d tugged off her gloves, one caught between her teeth, her fingers flying over the tool. Gia definitely knew her stuff.

“Hey,” he said, squatting beside her.

She set the chainsaw down on the ground and rocked back on her heels. “You ready to roll?”

“Always.”

“Good.” She nodded and reached for her glove lying on the ground.

When his hand shot out and grabbed it first, she looked up and glared at him. “Are we playing keep away now, Donovan? Because that’s real mature of you.”

“Thanks,” he said roughly.

“You’re welcome.” She made a give-it-up gesture with her bare hand. “Return the glove.”

He winced. “You saved my life.”

Some things had to be said.

She huffed out an impatient breath.  “Does this mean we share some kind of psychic bond now, or you’re going to pull a Robin Hood and stick by my side until you’ve returned the favor?”

He shook his head. “Not in my plans for today, no.”

“Good.” She smiled, a lazy, happy stretch of her lips that warmed him up inside. This was why he generally opted for pissing her off rather than pleasing her, because he felt the effect of her smile straight to his toes. With a really, really long detour in certain parts in the middle. “Can we go back to fighting the fire?”

He held the glove open for her. She stared at him for a moment and then slowly slid her hand inside.

“Would it kill you,” he asked, “to say You’re welcome, Donovan?”

She thought for a moment. He kept his fingers loose around hers because, hell, they were practically holding hands out here in the forest and he was pathetic. In the month since she’d joined the jump team, he’d yanked her up and down a dozen hills when everyone was scrambling with the gear. A helping hand was also standard practice getting in and out of the DC-3. But this was different somehow.

She shrugged. “Okay then. You’re welcome. Now can we go fight the fire?”

“You bet.” He stood, pulling her with him.

When they were both on their feet, she looked at him and then down at their joined hands. “You can let go now, Donovan.”

He did. She was right. They had a fire to knock down. Part of him wished she’d call him Rio. Not Donovan and not partner, but by his name. He wasn’t interchangeable with his brothers.

“Thank you,” he said again, starting for the fire. “For catching my ass. That was above and beyond. I owe you one.”

“I’m not expecting a fruit basket.” She sounded irritated. “Or joint accounting.” She waved an arm impatiently toward the rest of the guys. “That’s our team right there. We jump together. We fight together. We stick together. If you’re dumb enough to fall out of a plane, I catch your ass. You’d do the same for me because that’s how it works. I’m one of your boys.”

One of his boys? Like hell she was.

She shoved past him and stalked off toward the fire.

Christ. She was good. And her speech showed true management potential. He’d have to talk to Jack about giving her more responsibilities on the jump team. Unfortunately, though, he still had a problem, because there was no way he saw Gia as just one of his boys.  He had a feeling he wouldn’t be able to help himself. He’d held Gia and he wouldn’t be forgetting the feel of her anytime soon. Hell. Lusting after a team member was every kind of wrong and he damned certain didn’t look at Mack or Zay or Joey that way. So he had no business looking at Gia like he wanted to strip her jumpsuit down those long, long legs and follow his hands with his mouth.

Gia Jackson was off-limits.

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