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"There at the bottom of the canyon, to the left."
From her pilot's seat in the search and rescue helo, Natalia glanced toward the deep part of the canyon where Mac pointed, but she couldn't see anyone.
Her tactical flight officer and rescue paramedic, David MacAllister, lowered his binoculars and held up four fingers. "Two adults and two children," he said into the mic attached to his helmet.
"Geez. What were they thinking?"
"I doubt they expected an avalanche." Mac glanced at her, then took a swig of coffee from his thermal cup.
"I meant what were they thinking bringing little kids to a place like this? Parents should know better."
"Is that the voice of experience talking?"
"It doesn't take experience as much as common sense."
Natalia grinned. "Exactly." Mac knew her well. After five years working SAR together, two in Iraq and three with Mountain Air, they weren't just a team, they were best friends, like brother and sister. She doubted she could work so closely with anyone else.
Mac had his flaws, but he was caring and honest to a fault. If he said he was going to do something, he did it. His word was his bond and that meant everything to her. His best asset as a friend was that he knew when she needed space, and gave it to her.
"Yeah. Taking kids into a place you know is dangerous isn't just stupid, it could be considered child abuse," Mac said through thinned lips.
She did a double take. She'd never heard him voice his opinion so emphatically. And even stranger than that, he'd actually agreed with her. "Calling it child abuse might be a little much."
The area could be dangerous, though, and many hikers failed to do their research beforehand. Flash floods were common in the canyons during the monsoons, and though the rain had stopped now, foreboding gray sky and thunderheads the color of gunpowder threatened to unleash more. No one was out of danger, hikers or rescuers.
Invariably, apprehension chipped away at the certainty she needed to feel to complete a successful rescue. Natalia said a quick prayer that they'd reach the victims in time. She knew better than anyone that anything could happenat any time. The weather was as unpredictable as people.
It wasn't that long ago that a Phoenix news chopper had gone down, killing all inside. No matter how safe the aircraft, or how easy the job seemed, there was always risk involved. One little mistake, one blip of the weather, or even a bird sucked into the chopper blades, could mean disaster.
Earlier this morning, the search and rescue ground team had come in to rappel down the canyon, but with sheer cliffs and boulders in the way, they hadn't been able to reach the family. Now it was up to Natalia and her crew to airlift them out.
Normally, she carried a three-man crew: tactical flight officer, rescue paramedic and herself, the pilot. Today, because it was only a pickup, it was just her and Mac.
"Over there." He gestured again. She spotted the ground guys, and then, making a pass directly over the narrow box canyon, saw the family, trapped by an avalanche of rocks and boulders.
Natalia had flown these canyons hundreds of times, but every rescue was different. As usual, she made a couple of orbits to get a visual on the best place to go in.
"I need to get married," Mac said during the next flyover.
She jerked her head sideways. "Excuse me?"
"I'm serious. I need a wife."
"For what? Did you run out of women to sleep with in the greater Sedona area?" As Natalia came around again, focusing on the ground crew, Mac opened his door to watch for the signal.
"I don't sleep around."
"Yeah, and I'm Captain Kirk. Now pay attention. We have people in need here."
For years Mac had spouted off about wanting to be free of responsibility because he'd had to step up and be the man of the house for his mom and four sisters after his dad died.
He had to be joking about the wife.
"There " Natalia nodded to her right. "I can hover to lower the hoist. Ground said no injuries, so all we need to do is get them up. Their crew will take it from there."
"Great. We'll be in and out, and then maybe you'll find a few minutes to talk to me."
"We're trying to save lives here, MacAllister. Get with the program."
Mac went silent. She didn't look over, but felt the intensity of his gaze.
Her pulse quickened as she zeroed in on the family below, who were jumping up and down and waving their arms like windshield wipers. "Ready the hoist."
Double-checking the equipment, he shot her another sidelong glance. "Sure thing, mein capitan!"
She stiffened at the well-deserved gibe. Joking and needling each other was their antidote to the stress of any rescue. Every moment in the air could mean life or death to someone, including themselves, and over the years they'd developed an irreverent banter that relieved the tension and allowed them to stay on an even keel.
Someone else hearing them might be shocked at the tone and their seemingly callous disregard, but it was necessary. Emotions clouded judgment, and cloudy judgment caused mistakes. In the air, there was no room for mistakes.
She released a sigh. "I'm glad you realize who's in charge." And then, in almost the same breath, she said, "What are those ground guys doing? I can't hover all freaking day."
Then one of the SAR team below waved a flag, directing her to a specific point. She riveted her gaze on the ground crew, depending on them and Mac to guide her into position.
"We're good," he said. "Let's do it."
The first step was to send down the hoist to lower one of the ground guys into the canyon. He'd hook the people in and send them up, usually a couple at a time. Natalia and Mac had worked SAR together for so long the process was one they could do in their sleep. Yet every time was differentand equally dangerous.
Once they started the rescue, there was no bantering, just the business of saving lives, and they both gave it full concentration.
Two hours later, they'd finished and were winging their way back to the Mountain Air SAR office at Love Field in Prescott. The sun had reappeared, steaming hot through the bubble of Plexiglas surrounding them. Natalia shoved her flight helmet up a little. "God, I've never been so tense."
"Nothing a shot of tequila won't fix," Mac shouted from the back, where he was securing the equipment.
The muscles in her shoulders felt like double knots under her skin. She shrugged a few times to relax them. The sunlight magnified through the glass was making her clothes stick to her skin.
Mac came back up front and sat next to her. "You've been tense a lot lately. Maybe you should see a doctor. Find what's really the matter."
Not a chance. Hearing her symptoms, a doctor would ground her immediately. If that happened, she might as well put a bullet in her brain.
But Mac didn't know, and despite herself, she smiled. He couldn't help himself. Fixing other people's lives seemed to be a part of his DNA.
"It's not a problem, Mac, so let's change the subject." As the words left her lips, sweat broke out on her forehead. She sucked in a deep breath, but it felt as if she'd inhaled fire instead of air. Suddenly the chopper was like a sauna. Sweat oozed from her every pore. When she looked at Mac, she realized it was just her.
Her gut seized. No! Not in the air. It was not going to happen! She wouldn't let it. Wiping her face with her shirtsleeve and acting as normal as humanly possible, she drew another breath, then slowly let her lungs collapse. She did it again.
Mac stared at her.
"Just a little tension. I know how to handle it." She pulled herself up and repeated the ritual of rolling her shoulders to get out the kinksand as she did, she felt the sensation dissipate. She glanced at the controls, her hand still steady on the cyclic, one foot on the antitorque pedal. It was all good.
"Okay," he said, but she could hear the doubt in his voice.
She wiped her face again, and with the airfield thankfully in sight ahead, she said, "We're going in."
Mac folded his arms across his chest. He and Natalia never talked during takeoff and landing, the most dangerous parts of any mission, and she hoped he wouldn't resume the conversation later. If he did, his words would fall on deaf ears.
All she wanted to do was finish the reports for the job and then take a drive to unwind. "Prescott tower, this is Mountain Air Search and Rescue, Hotel Romeo One. Over."
When they were back at the SAR office and had deposited their neonorange vests in the bin, Mac crossed the austere room and stood next to Natalia's gray metal desk. He stuffed his hands in the pockets of his faded jeans. "So," he said. "Can you talk now?"
She picked up the report papers, sat on the desk corner and started reading. "I can always talk. I just open my mouth and"
He plucked the papers from her hands. "Part of a conversation includes paying attention. Can you do that for just a minute?"
She stared at him briefly, then crossed her arms and narrowed her green eyes. "Well, I guess I better."
He stepped back, out of the line of fire. "Don't look at me like that. I've got a problem and I need your help."
Her eyes widened. "You need" she placed a hand flat on her chest "my help? Moi?" He couldn't stop the smile. "Seriously?"
"Seriously." But how the hell could he explain quickly? Today she seemed even more antsy than normal. She didn't like to hang around the airport once a job was over. Neither of them did, preferring to get out and do something to relieve the tension that was common after completing a rescue.
The more dangerous the mission, the more winding down was needed. For him, it was a beer and a game of pool with his buddies. Natalia liked to get in her Mustang and take the switchbacks between Sedona and Flagstaff as if she were trying for a NASCAR slot. When she couldn't do that, she ran as if training for the Boston Marathon. He had to be quick or she'd be outta here.
"Okay," she said, eyeing him suspiciously. "Spit it out."
He sucked some air. If only it was that easy. He still didn't know how the hell he was going to manage anything. All he knew was that he had to do it.
"A year ago I received a letter." He reached for the inside pocket of his fatigue shirt. Damn, he'd forgotten to bring it along. "A letter that said " He eased onto the desk next to her and looked directly into her eyes. "It said I have a kid."
Not one muscle in her body moved. After a long moment, she blinked, and then, moistening her lips, placed her palms on her thighs and stood. "A kid? You have a kid you knew nothing about?"
He shot to his feet, threw his hands in the air. "Of course I didn't know. You think I'm the kind of guy who'd just leave my kid out there to fend for himself? Even if I didn't love his mother, I wouldn't do that."
Natalia's expression was a combination of shock and incredulity.
"It was a short fling, not a relationship. She was pretty and available."
Natalia looked away, then picked up the flight reports again. "When?"
"Six years ago."
"Six years ago you were in Iraq."
"Right." He paced. Rubbed his chin. "The woman was working at one of the field hospitals. I was with her only a couple of times before I was transferred out, and never saw her again."
"And the letter was from this nurse?"
"No, the letter came from my old commanding officer. Apparently the boy's grandmother had been trying to find me. I don't have all the details, but the child's mother disappeared and her mother tracked me through the military."
Silence. Another frown. "How do you even know he's"
"I asked for DNA tests." Mac dragged a hand through his hair and walked to the window, focused on the chopper as the crew prepared it for the next emergency.
"I had to know," he went on. "But no way in hell did I expect anything to come of it. Something did, and I have to do what's right. I can't leave my kid in an orphanage on another continent when I could give him a great life here."
"An orphanage? What happened to the grandmother?"
"She died, and there was no one else."
Natalia's stunned expression was exactly how he'd felt when he'd heard. Hell, he still felt as if he'd been hit by a grenade.
"There was no one else until six months ago when a great aunt was located, and now she's trying to get custody. So I hired an attorney to see what I could do, and that's why I need a wife. Because of the countries involved, it's almost impossible to cut through the red tape, and the agenciesthe United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, Homeland Security and some others, aren't too hot on sending a child to live with a single guy in another country. Everything has to be perfect."
She picked up the flight papers again, held them to her chest and scowled at him, shaking her head. "I don't understand. If this is your child"
"The woman wasn't an American," he interjected, halting the next questions before she got to them. "She was an Iraqi civilian working for the U.S. government. She disappeared while on duty and" He turned, his throat constricting as he spoke. "A week later they found her body. She was murdered and apparently no one knows what happened." Hell, it might even be his fault. Militant Iraqis viewed relationships between Iraqi women and soldiers as fraternizing with the enemy. Mac rubbed his eyes. God, he couldn't even think about that.
"Because it's Iraq, it's been a nightmare trying to get guardianship, which I need before I can get him a passport and visa."
Mac watched as Natalia reached around and removed the band from her ponytail, letting her silky dark hair fall around her face like a frame. It was a ritual that signaled the end of their joba ritual during which, for just a few moments, his blood surged and he imagined being more than just friends.
She'd run her fingers through her hairalso part of the ritualand then she'd smile, feeling good about the job they'd done. A feeling they usually shared.
Not today. She got up and came over to stand next to him, feet apart, arms folded.