Scott let Margaret digest his statement before continuing. As unpleasant as it was for him to say, he could see it was equally agonizing to hear. ‘I got too big for my britches. Thinking we were indomitable. Fighting fire. Saving folk, their homes, wildlife.’
‘But you did do all of those things.’
Aye. He had, but…he’d not had any balance. Too many shifts, long hours in the gym, an obsession with getting the right amount in the bank. The one thing he’d never done was cheat. Heaven knew there’d been opportunities. The ‘fire bunnies,’ as his squad called them, were always in the bar, round the pool table, ready to offer a ride home after a long day out on shift, but none of them were Margaret. That, and he’d been too damn blinkered about being the best to notice. ‘I prioritised work over you. It was a bad call.’
‘I’m sure there were plenty of girls willing to fill my shoes when you gave me the flick.’
He physically felt the heartache in her voice. ‘No one would’ve.’
A simple question with a complicated answer.
‘The fire I was telling you about. The one I went to with Caleb.’
‘On paper we had everything we needed. New gear, new helicopter, a big old forest fire. Couldn’t wait to get out there. Caleb was nervous, but I’d convinced him we’d be fine. Two top lads in the class? Who better?’ An excruciating tightness seized his chest as the memories flooded back. ‘We were in the chopper, standing at the door, ready to jump when we hit the right spot. Just as we found a clear bit in the woods, gusts kicked in and we both fell out.’
‘Of the chopper?’ Margaret asked through her fingers.
He nodded. ‘We both caught air with our parachutes in time. Caleb made ground. I got stuck in a tree about fifty metres above him.’ It was the most terrifying moment of his life. He watched the blood drain from Margaret’s face as he continued. ‘The wind shifted along with the fire.’
The fact that Scott had survived was little short of a miracle. He’d curled himself into a ball and felt the fire wash over him with a scalding intensity he wouldn’t wish on his worst enemy. The temperatures were doubled down on the forest floor where Caleb had been unable to find cover. The helicopter had come back, lowered a rope and pulled Scott up as the fire continued its low, lethal sweep across the forest floor.
‘Oh, Scott, no.’ A low moan came from Margaret’s throat almost identical to Caleb’s wife keening over her husband’s casket. Scott had sworn then and there he would never put Margaret through that sort of pain.
She reached out and touched the edge of the scar by his shirtsleeve. ‘Didn’t either of you have safety equipment?’
He slowly undid his shirt cuffs and rolled them up to expose the scars that would mark him for life. ‘At the time they told me I was lucky…’
Margaret shook her head. ‘No, no. I can’t bear it.’
‘That reaction is precisely why I wrote to you.’
Her eyes widened. ‘I wasn’t saying—’
‘I know, but I was so repulsed by myself I couldn’t imagine anyone loving me. I had third-degree burns across my back, head, arms… Scarred forever. But Caleb died. Died because I’d not been strong enough to say, Not today. Not this fire. I was no good to anyone.’
‘I would’ve come out. I would’ve helped.’
‘I don’t think anyone could’ve helped. Not then.’ He’d repelled everyone. Pushed the person he loved most as far away as possible.
‘So what happened? What changed?’