I’m a big fan of Annabeth Albert’s and a new book from her is always a red letter day on my calendar! Burn Zone is book one in her new Hotshots series which features a group of guys who work as Smoke Jumpers in the fictional Painter’s Ridge in central Oregon – and I admit I had to look up Smoke Jumping as I’d never heard of it before! There are undoubtedly shades of the author’s excellent Out Of Uniform series here in terms of the camaraderie and close-knit relationships between team members, as well as the obvious fact that the characters from both series work in dangerous – potentially life-threatening – professions, but I enjoy the character types and sorts of through-thick-and-thin friendships Ms. Albert is skilled at creating, so those similarities worked for me.
Lincoln Reid has always been something of a loner. After the death of his mother when he was young, he was either ignored or knocked around by his drunken, abusive father, the one good thing in his life his best friend Wyatt Hartman and Wyatt’s family, who pretty much adopted Linc as one of their own. Linc and Wyatt always intended to become Smoke Jumpers together, and years later, have achieved that ambition and are still friends, even though Wyatt’s obvious bigotry when he found out Linc was gay made some dents in their friendship, and his tendency to make unpleasant comments about it mean they’re not as close as they once were. When the book opens, Wyatt is pissed because his nineteen-year-old brother Jacob has just come out, and he warns Linc to stay away from him. Linc tells Wyatt there’s no need to worry and tells him to mind his own business… although he can’t deny that he does enjoy Jacob’s company and finds his youthful confidence, his outgoing nature and most of all, the warmth of his smile, very appealing. But Jacob is ten years his junior and his best friend’s little brother. Firmly off limits.
Six years later, and nine months after Wyatt’s death in an accident, Linc is surprised – and not in a good way – when Jacob turns out to be one of their squad’s newest recruits. It’s bad enough that the Hartmans lost one son to the job, and Jacob must surely be aware what signing up for this could mean for his family – but worse, all the feelings of attraction Linc has steadfastly buried over the past six years come rushing back… and he’s not sure how long he’ll be able to keep them at bay.
At nineteen, Jacob had a massive crush on Linc, but has come to accept that nothing is ever going to happen between them – or had, until the day of Wyatt’s funeral when, devastated with grief and unable to hold back any more, Linc kissed him and all Jacob’s buried – but never abandoned – hopes and wants came roaring back. He knows he’s the last person Linc expects to see at the start of training, but he’s worked hard for his shot and isn’t going to let Linc’s obvious disapproval or his mother’s fears get in the way of fulfilling his dream. And now that he knows that there is more than one-sided attraction between them, he’s also determined to show Linc that they deserve a chance at pursuing something more than friendship.
Even though Linc and Jacob embark on a sexual relationship early in the book – and yes, Ms. Albert trots out the old ‘one time to get it out of our systems’ trope but she tempers the corniness of it by having both guys realise it’ll never work even before they jump into bed – their romance is (befittingly) a slow burn as they go from secret booty calls to overnight stays to simply hanging out and enjoying each other’s company out of bed as much as in it. The relationship is lovely – for the first time in a very long time Linc realises he’s happy, and so is Jacob, who at long last has the man he’s wanted for so long by his side, both personally and professionally. But the conflict in the romance – supplied by Linc’s doubts, his secrecy, his attempts to keep Jacob at arm’s length and his blow-hot-blow-cold attitude – go on for a little too long, and I started to dislike the way Jacob kept making allowances and accepting the crumbs of affection that were all Linc was prepared to offer. Jacob’s a wonderful guy and at times I almost began to agree with Linc’s assessment that he deserved better! I admired the understanding and patience Jacob displayed, but I wish he’d called Linc on his crap earlier.
Linc has a lot of baggage to work through, and his loneliness and sadness, the longing he feels for Jacob are so superbly rendered that they leap off the page. I’ve never been a big fan of the best-friend’s-sibling trope with its invariable ‘stay away’ order from the bestie, but Annabeth Albert makes it work here because of the way she’s characterised Linc as a man so bound up in his perception of honour, of himself and what he owes to others that he feels he’s not entitled to put his own wants and needs before anyone else’s. He has to learn to choose himself before he can choose to be with Jacob.
Ms. Albert has obviously done her research as regards the work of the Smoke Jumpers and all the other work they do throughout the season to try to prevent fires as well as the work they do when fighting them, which is interesting and adds a sense of authenticity to the story. She also creates a strong sense of camaraderie between the crew members, men and women who do an incredibly dangerous, highly skilled job they obviously love, but who work for a living to provide for their families and sometimes struggle to make ends meet. There’s an extraordinary ordinariness (if you will) about these guys and their family lives and relationships, and I really liked the way that those two things balanced each other throughout the story.
Linc and Jacob are engaging, three-dimensional principals, plus there’s a strong secondary cast I’m sure we’re going to see more of in future books. The well-established setting, well-written relationships and a sexy, slow-burn romance combine to make Burn Zone a solid start to the Hotshots series and an enjoyable read overall.
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