Up in Smoke
Up in Smoke is the fourth book in Annabeth Albert’s Hotshots series about wildlife firefighters and smoke jumpers based in rural Oregon, but it’s got a slightly different tone (and a very different sort of cover) to the other books in the series. Smoke jumping does feature in the story, but it’s more of a backdrop to the main storyline – about how the two leads learn to adapt to the unexpected circumstances in which they find themselves – and the slow-burn romance.
Smoke jumper Brandt Wilder occasionally helps out a friend who runs a sky-diving school. The clients on this particular afternoon are a brother and sister – Shane and Shelby Travis; it’s Shane’s birthday and the jump is his sister’s present to him. Shane is quiet and clearly a bit nervous – and also obviously used to fading into the background around more ebullient sister – but something about him captures Brandt’s attention. Shane supposes he should have known that Shelby’s sudden interest in jumping out of a plane was somehow related to her interest in a hot guy; Brandt really is gorgeous, but Shane deliberately tamps down the frisson of awareness he feels every time Brandt touches him as he readies them for the tandem jump. Afterwards, with his feet back safely on the ground, Shane has to admit that the jump really had been exhilarating – and that the short time he’d flown with Brandt Wilder is something he’ll never forget.
Almost a year later, the last thing Brandt could ever have imagined is opening his front door to find Shane Travis on his doorstep – with a baby in tow. He’s completely stunned when Shane tells him the baby is his, the result of the one-night stand he had with Shelby the night before Shane’s birthday. He explains that Shelby turned up in Portland (where he was auditioning for a TV talent show) with the baby a few days earlier and was gone the next morning, most likely off to Canada with one of her friends. Brandt can’t believe it – but Shelby named him as baby Jewel’s dad in the note she left for Shane and had Brandt’s name put on the birth certificate.
Shane has spent most of his life clearing up Shelby’s messes, but nothing could have prepared him for being left literally holding the baby. Unable to bear the idea of Jewel being put into care, Shane decides his only option is to take her to her dad, but it’s only once he’s arrived that he remembers that Brandt – who jumps out of planes to fight fires for a living – is as far from ideal fatherhood material as he is himself; an itinerant musician trying to build a career isn’t going to be considered able to properly care for an infant either. But he didn’t know what else to do; he’s worried and sleep deprived, he’s driven for hours to get to Painter’s Ridge and is too tired to be able to make any coherent decisions. But one thing is clear. No matter what sort of ‘dad material’ he may be, Brandt is the only person Shane can turn to for help.
Brandt is shell-shocked by the idea of being a dad, but having been a foster kid himself, he likes the idea of handing Jewel over to social services as little as Shane does. When Shane’s rested and they’re all fed, they talk about the next steps, and when Shane offers to stick around for a while, Brandt offers him the spare room – “two sets of hands is better than one” after all.
Over the following days and weeks, Brandt and Shane go from unexpected roommates to friends, sharing baby duties and bonding over shared new experiences with her. They slowly fall into a routine of caring for Jewel – taking turns at feeding and night-time duty – and caring for each other, preparing meals, sharing chores and shopping trips and generally being a solid support for one another. I loved watching them doing things together so seamlessly that they don’t quite realise they’re doing it. It’s a really well done getting-to-know-you phase, and alongside it, the attraction that sparked between them a year earlier is bubbling along beneath the surface. Neither man has a great deal of sexual experience with guys; Shane isn’t really out – he plays a lot of super rural communities where it’s just easier to keep himself and his sexuality to himself, and Brandt just… likes who he likes and has never felt the need to put a label on it. He’s been with more women than men, but certainly isn’t averse to a little exploration and fun with Shane. It doesn’t have to be anything permanent – neither of them is looking for that – but it can be more than a one-time thing (baby duties permitting) for as long as they both want it to be.
Up in Smoke is a quiet, but sexy character-driven romance about two lost souls finding love and purpose and partnership, and building the family neither of them ever had. It’s a low-conflict, low-angst story; the biggest obstacle to the romance is the fact that both Shane and Brandt have been used to living a rather nomadic lifestyle – unencumbered and going where the work is – and both will finally have to deal with emotional baggage that has made them (understandably) cautious about allowing themselves to trust wholeheartedly in another person. But ultimately, they’re two decent guys trying to do the best they can in difficult circumstances, and there’s never any doubt that baby Jewel is their priority. Ms. Albert’s descriptions of the challenges involved in parenting a very young baby are pretty spot on, too.
While Shane’s frustration with Shelby is palpable and well-written, neither he nor Brandt hate her for what she did, and I appreciated that she’s never demonised or made out to be the villain of the piece. Dumping her baby with her brother is a crappy thing to do, and she definitely comes across as somewhat unstable, but she’s troubled, not evil, and needs help.
Shane and Brandt are engaging and easy to root for, their emotional connection comes through strongly and this was an easy book to get lost in. I really liked the descriptions of Shane’s musical talent and songwriting skills, the cameo appearances from Jacob and Linc (Burn Zone), and the way the author still manages to convey the dangerous nature of Brandt’s job even though there isn’t a major fire or incident in the story (a deliberate choice which Ms. Albert explains in her author’s note). I have a couple of reservations, however; mainly that the guys embark on their fling a bit too quickly, and also that the late-book conflict is maybe a little drawn out for two people who have been communicating so well, but those things apart, Up in Smoke is a nice mixture of sweet and steamy, and I’m happy to recommend both it, and the entire Hotshots series.