High Heat, book two in Annabeth Albert’s Hotshots series, picks up the story of Garrick Nelson, one of the crew of Smoke Jumpers based near the fictional town of Painter’s Ridge in central Oregon. Garrick was badly injured during a jump at the end of book one, Burn Zone, breaking both his legs and incurring a spinal injury, but by the time High Heat opens some six months later, he’s out of hospital and back at home. He’s still undergoing intense physical therapy and gets around on crutches or in a wheelchair, and he’s absolutely determined he’s going to get back to doing the job he loves – no matter how hard he has to work and train, smoke jumping is all he’s ever wanted to do and he’s completely focused on getting back on the team.
When an injured dog shows up at his front door, Garrick heads over to his neighbour’s house to ask for help – Shirley has dogs and hopefully will be able to lend him a leash and know which vet to call. To his surprise, it’s not Shirley who opens the door but a gorgeous young man he quickly realises must be her grandson. Also a surprise is the zing of attraction Garrick feels – something he hasn’t experienced much of since the accident.
Vivacious, quirky Rain Fisher has come to live with his grandmother for a few months while he figures out what he wants to do and where he wants to go next, and he’s definitely noticed her distractingly hot neighbour. He helps Garrick get the injured dog – whom they name Cookie – to the vet and decides to encourage him to keep her, at least until a suitable ‘forever home’ can be found. Back at Garrick’s house, Rain offers to help get Cookie settled, and then to come over to take her for walks; and when Garrick points out that Rain shouldn’t have to give up his time each day to do that, Rain has a ready answer. He wants to get a job on a hotshot crew, and needs to make sure he’ll meet the fitness requirements. Given his background, Garrick knows exactly what Rain will have to be able to do and how best to get into shape, so Rain suggests that in return for helping out with Cookie, Garrick becomes his (sort of) personal trainer and helps him work towards passing the fitness tests.
What starts out as Rain calling in to pick up Cookie for her twice-daily walks soon turns into shared meals, hanging out together and interesting conversation, and the attraction that had sparked between them at their first meeting turns flirtatious and then into more. They agree to a fling; Rain has never been one for staying in one place too long, and Garrick has never been the relationship type, so a short-term thing will suit them both. But this is the first time Garrick has contemplated having sex since the accident, and with his doctors and therapists focusing on the physical and neurological effects of his injuries, he hasn’t felt able to express his concerns about his sexual function, which has certainly changed since he was injured. This aspect of the story is handled really well; Rain is completely unfazed by any of it and encourages Garrick to talk about his concerns and seek help. He’s wonderfully accepting and supportive, always taking his cue from Garrick and making it very clear that he’s completely on board with whatever they are able to get up to ;) Rain may be young, but he’s very mature in a lot of ways; his upbringing in a kind of commune where people shared and mucked in to help each other has stuck with him, but more than that, he genuinely likes making himself useful and doing things that make people happy. He impressed me from the moment he asked Garrick “Can you tell me the best way to help you?” when he was going to drive Garrick and Cookie to the vet’s, and I really liked the way he shows his care and affection for Garrick in lots of subtle (and some not so subtle!) ways.
Like Burn Zone, High Heat has a May/December thing going on, and it’s a trope I enjoy when handled well, as is the case here. I don’t think Garrick’s exact age is mentioned, but I’m guessing mid-thirties, while Rain is twenty-three, so it’s a gap of a bit over a decade; and while Rain does sometimes tease Garrick about it, it’s never really an issue for them. Rain is outgoing and affectionate and brimming with self-confidence, but he’s also dragged down by his family’s well-meaning teasing about how he’s too restless to settle, memories of how his natural exuberance was often too much for some people to take, and his mother’s exasperation over his being (as she described it) too needy when he was a kid.
Ms. Albert does a great job of showing that while in many ways Rain and Garrick are opposites, they’re just what the other needs. They’re cute together and I enjoyed their romance, but this is also a story about the need to adapt and change, recognising that the future we map out for ourselves sometimes takes an unexpected turn and that the path we’ve chosen may no longer the one we should be following. Garrick needs to accept that his life has changed irrevocably and learn how to move forward; Rain needs to consider that maybe he’s chasing the wrong dream and learn to trust in himself more.
The author points out in her notes at the end that she spent time researching and speaking to people with injuries similar to Garrick’s and that certainly shows, as she handles the subject of his physical and mental state with respect and sensitivity. There are cameo appearances from other members of the crew, notably Linc and Jacob, and I wanted to single out Garrick’s dad for special mention, specifically the relationship between them, which is very nicely judged.
The biggest issue I had as regards the romance is that the conflict – which is fairly minimal – stems around one of those arguments where one character thinks they know what’s best for the other and is out to sacrifice their own happiness because of it; it’s one of my ‘least favourite things I want to read in a romance’.
Apart from that, I enjoyed Garrick and Rain’s story and while I perhaps didn’t connect with them as much as with Linc and Jacob in the previous book, High Heat is well worth a recommendation, and I’m looking forward to reading book three, Feel the Heat, this autumn.