Desert Isle Keeper
Feel the Fire
Book three in Annabeth Albert’s Hotshots series is a second-chance romance between two men – best friends – who fell in love as teens, but were parted when one family moved away and their plans to be together didn’t work out. It’s a trope I generally enjoy, and I’m pleased to say that my expectations were met; Feel the Fire is a poignant, sexy and satisfying romance featuring likeable, complex characters whose intense emotional connection leaps off the page.
California-based fire behaviour specialist Luis Rivera isn’t too pleased at being asked to head up to central Oregon for a few weeks to help out at the Painter’s Ridge airbase, but the hotshot crew there is seriously shorthanded at a time they’re having to deal with a spate of fires they believe to be the result of arson. This sort of thing isn’t unusual; ever tightening budgets and hiring freezes mean Luis has been ‘loaned out’ to other forest services before, but Painter’s Ridge holds painful memories and is somewhere he’d never planned to go back to. Still, he can’t really refuse, especially as his particular area of expertise is likely to be useful in helping to capture the arsonist – and in any case, he’s unlikely to run into the guy who broke his heart twenty years before. Most likely, Tucker is happily running the family ranch with his wife and passel of kids.
Tucker Ryland and Luis more or less grew up together and were each other’s first love. When they were sixteen, Luis’ family moved to California, and the plan was for Tucker to move to be with him as soon as possible, but those plans had to be put on hold when Tucker’s dad had a heart attack and Tucker was needed on the family ranch. Time dragged on with Tucker stuck in Oregon and Luis not-so-patiently waiting for Tucker to join him – but eventually, and with no idea of when Tucker would be able to get away, that patience ran out, and things between them didn’t end well. Twenty years later, Tucker gets one helluva shock when he realises that the arson specialist coming to Painter’s Ridge on temporary assignment from the Angeles National Forest is the same boy – well, man now – who’d left town with Tucker’s heart all those years ago.
Their first meeting is somewhat awkward to say the least, as they try to reconcile their memories with the reality of each other as they are now. Neither is quite sure how to handle it; they were everything to each other once upon a time and now, they’re practically strangers. Tucker can feel the anger coming off Luis in waves; he knows they’ll have to talk at some point, but he’s not looking forward to it. And Luis… well, his anger is down to the fact that he doesn’t want to have to deal with the old hurts and memories seeing Tucker again has brought to the surface. Yet it’s very quickly apparent that whatever the cause of the tension and frustration each can sense coming from the other, there’s something else there, too, some little, long buried spark that neither man is actually sure he wants but can’t fail to recognise. Before long, that spark ignites (pun intended!) and the soul-deep connection the two men feel carries over into an intense physical relationship. But Luis’ presence in Oregon was always going to be temporary, and the supreme irony that they’re going end up exactly where they were twenty years earlier is not lost on either of them. They’re no longer teens who think the world well lost for love, they’re grown men who have put down roots and made lives and careers for themselves. So the question now is – are they prepared to do what it takes in order to make a life together?
Feel the Fire is an expertly crafted, character-driven romance, and Annabeth Albert does a wonderful job of showing Luis and Tucker getting past that initial awkwardness, then gradually getting to know the men they are now and essentially falling in love all over again. While the arson plotline is the main impetus for bringing the couple back together, it’s very much a secondary storyline because the main focus is firmly on the relationship, which develops organically and in a way that is refreshingly mature because of the way that Luis and Tucker are so honest with each other. They talk things through, admit their mistakes, and display a degree of acceptance and understanding (I loved that Luis was always so careful to check with Tucker – who is demisexual – about his limits) that not only feels absolutely right for a couple in their mid-thirties, but also provides an interesting and effective contrast with their rather idealistic romance when they were teens. I’ve read some early reviews that criticised the book’s pacing for being on the slow side, but I’d have to disagree; the pacing is realistic given Luis and Tucker haven’t seen each other for twenty years and have to get to know each other again, and also, because they’re adults with adult responsibilities and a couple of decades of emotional baggage under their belts, they are naturally more cautious and often have other people and situations to consider before they act.
In Tucker’s case those responsibilities are his twin sons, Wade and Walker, who are seventeen and approaching big changes in their lives. They’re as different as chalk and cheese; Wade is a real extrovert – outgoing, lively and says whatever comes into his head – and looking forward to leaving home for college, while Walker is quieter and more cautious, clearly struggling with something and not wanting to talk about it. Wade’s enthusiastic matchmaking for his dad is funny and oddly sweet (I had to laugh when he gave Tucker a box of condoms and told him to have fun!). They’re well-rounded characters in their own right, and their relationships with each other and Tucker are very well written. I appreciated that Tucker’s ex-wife isn’t demonised and that we’re shown them successfully co-parenting the twins and being supportive of each other.
As I’ve noted in the previous books, the author’s research into the work of the people involved in wildfire fighting is excellent and used to very good effect, and I love that this series features characters in very unusual professions. Feel the Fire is my favourite Hotshots book so far – it’s a romantic, touching story about rediscovery and reconnection – and realising it’s never too late to follow your dreams.