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By JILL SHALVIS
Copyright © 2006
All right reserved.
Chapter One If you asked Melanie Anderson, nothing was sexier than flying. Not an eighty-five mile-per-hour ride in a Ferrari, not any chick flick out there, nothing, not even men. Not that she had anything against the penis-carrying gender, but flying was where it was at for Mel, and had been since the tender age of four, when she'd constructed wings out of cardboard and jumped out of a tree on a dare. Unfortunately, that first time the ground got in her way, breaking her fall.
And her ankle.
Her second try had come at age eight, when she'd leapt off her granny's second-story deck into a pile of fallen leaves. No broken ankle this time, but she did receive a nice contusion to the back of the head.
By age twelve, a time when most girls discovered boys and their toys, Mel had discovered airplanes, and had taken a job sweeping for tips at a local airport just to be near them. Maybe because her own home never seemed happy, maybe because she didn't have much else to look forward to, but the magic of flying was all she ever dreamed about.
She wanted to be a pilot. And not just any pilot, but a kick-ass pilot who could fly anywhere, anytime, and look cool while doing it.
Now she was twenty-six and she'd pulled it all off. She ran her own charter service: Anderson Air. That Anderson Air consisted of a single Cessna 172 and a not-exactly-air-worthy Hawker was another matter altogether. Having fueled her dreams from cardboard wings to titanium steel made her proud as hell of herself. Now, if only she could pay her bills, things would be just about perfect, but money, like man-made orgasms, remained in short supply.
"Mel! Mel, sweetie, the oven is kaput again!"
Mel sighed as she walked through the lobby of North Beach Airport, a small, privately owned, fixed-base operation. The cozy, sparsely decorated place was dotted with worn leather couches and low, beat-up coffee tables and potted palm trees-low maintenance to the extreme. A couple of the walls were glass, looking out onto the tarmac and the two large hangars, one of which housed the maintenance department and the other the overnight tie-down department. Beyond that lay a string of fourteen smaller hangars, all rentals. And beyond that, Santa Barbara and the Pacific Ocean, where Mel could routinely find her line guys and aircraft mechanic riding the waves on their surfboards instead of doing their job.
The far wall held a huge map of the world, dotted with different colored pushpins designating the places where she and everyone else had flown on various chartered flights. Red pins dominated. Mel was red, of course, and just looking at the map made her smile with pride.
Just past the map, the wall jutted out, opening up into the Sunshine Café, an ambitious name for five round tables and a small bar/nook, behind which was a stove, oven, microwave, and refrigerator, all crammed into six hundred square feet and painted a bright sunshine yellow. On the walls hung photos, all of planes, and all gorgeously shot from the ground's viewpoint.
Charlene Stone stood in the middle of the kitchen nook, bottle-dyed maroon hair piled on top of her head, her black lip gloss a perfect match to her black fingernails. She'd turned forty this year and wore a T-shirt that read TWENTY WAS GOOD BUT FORTY IS BETTER, and a pair of short shorts that rivaled Daisy Duke's. As the eighties had been Char's favorite decade to date, she had Poison blaring from a boom box on the counter while staring into the oven. "I can't get my muffins going," she said in her Alabama drawl.
"I thought I was your muffin, baby."
This from Charlene's husband, Al, the photographer who'd taken the pictures on the walls, who despite being forty himself had never outgrown his horny twenties. Medium height, built like the boxer he'd once been, he waggled a brow and grinned.
They'd been married forever, had in fact raised two kids while they'd still been kids themselves, but they had empty-nest syndrome now, and were currently revisiting their honeymoon days-meaning they talked about sex often, had sex often, and talked about it some more.
"People come here for my muffins," Charlene said, and smacked Al's chest.
"I love your muffins."
"You're just kissing up now."
This brought out a big, hopeful grin. "No, but I'd like to." He shifted close, put his hands on Char's hips. "Kiss up, and then down ..."
Char shot Mel a long look. "Men are dogs."
Mel tended to agree with that assessment but she knew enough to keep her tongue. "I'll get the oven fixed."
"Oh, honey, that'd be great. I know you're swamped and this is the last thing you need."
Yep, on the list of things Mel didn't need, the oven going on the blink fell right behind a hole in her head. "We need the oven. I'll get it fixed ASAP."
"Good, because if I keep disappointing the customers, we aren't going to be able to pay our rent this month. Sally will freak."
Ah, yes, the elusive Sally.
Sally was the owner of North Beach Airport, and everyone's boss, from fueling to maintenance to hangaring. Mel herself rented space from Sally for Anderson Air and in return for a lower fee managed the whole airport for Sally. Since Sunshine Café happened to be one of the few profitable segments of North Beach, the broken oven fell into Mel's already-overflowing pot of responsibilities. She pulled the radio off the clip on her belt to call their fix-it guy, who sometimes fixed things, and sometimes didn't. Mostly didn't. "I'll get Ernest."
"Yeah, yeah." Mel brought the radio up to her mouth. "Ernest, come to the café, please."
No answer, which was not a big surprise. No one was sure exactly how old Ernest was but he'd been at North Beach as long as Mel could remember. According to other sources, he'd been around since the dawn of time. Only thing was, he was grumpy as an old goat and was rarely anywhere he should be when Mel needed him.
"He's probably rescuing a spider." To Al's credit, he said this with a straight face.
Ernest loved spiders. He actually carried around a special species book in his back pocket so that he could characterize each and every spider he came across, and here just off the Santa Barbara coast, in the shadows of the Santa Ynez Mountains, he came across a lot. The only thing he loved more than spiders was computers. The man, strange as it seemed, was a computer god. He probably could have gotten a job anywhere for more money, but undoubtedly he couldn't nap on the job anywhere else so he stayed at North Beach.
"Ernest," Mel said again into the radio. "Come in, please. Ernest, come in."
"No need to shout, missy."
Mel nearly jumped out of her skin at the low, craggily, grumpy voice behind her. Ernest stood there, all five feet of him packed with attitude, from his steel-toed boots to his greasy trousers and long-sleeved, button-down plaid, to his bad comb-over, which was rumpled now, telling her he'd been sleeping in the storage closet again. The crease on his cheek that resembled the side of a can of oil was a dead giveaway. "The oven's down," she told him.
"Eh?" He cupped a hand to his bad ear. "Speak up!"
Mel would have fired his curmudgeonly ass a long time ago except she couldn't afford anyone else. "Oven! Broken!"
"You never talk loud enough," he grumbled. "Sally's the only one who talks loud enough."
Ernest hadn't actually spoken directly to Sally in years, but arguing with the man was like betting against the house.
Never going to win.
"Can you fix the oven?" she yelled in his good ear.
"I'll fix the damn oven soon as I fix the damn fuel pump!"
Mel's stomach dropped. "What's wrong with the gas pump?" Muffins they could live without. Getting fuel into their customers' aircrafts, some of which landed here daily for the fuel alone, they could not.
"Nothing I can't handle." Ernest was already walking away, his pants slipping down because he had no hips to hold them on. He stopped, hitched them up, then kept moving.
The radio squawked with the announcement of an unscheduled plane arriving in twenty minutes. Mel waited for one of the linemen, Ritchie or Kellan, to respond to the news, but neither did. Once again she lifted the radio to her lips and called for her employees.
"Gotta love those brain-dead college students," Char said.
Mel resisted the urge to smack her own forehead with the radio. "If those two are in the back hangar getting high again, I'm going to kill them."
"We're falling apart at the seams." Charlene hugged Mel. "Look, honey, you've got your hands full. I'll go see what I can wrangle up without the oven, 'kay?"
"I'll get on it," Mel promised her just as the Poison CD ended.
For one blessed moment silence reigned before a new CD clicked on. Journey. "I just wish we could give this place the makeover it needs," Char yelled over the music.
Mel wished that, too. They were making ends meet, and they all had jobs, two really good things, but no one was getting rich, that was for sure.
Not that she wanted to be rich, but comfortable would be nice ...
Al followed his wife into the kitchen, his hand sliding down her back to squeeze her ass.
"Albert Edward Stone!" Charlene said in her most Southern-genteel voice. "If you think that instead of cooking muffins, I'm going to 'cook' with you-"
"Come on, just a quickie-"
"That's what you got just last night!"
"Hey, that wasn't a quickie, that was some of my best work!"
Mel covered her ears and walked away. She didn't need the reminder that everyone was getting quickies and she was not. So it'd been a long time for her, so what? People could live without sex.
Or so the rumor went.
"Mel? Mel, are you around here somewhere?"
At Dimi's voice drifting through the lobby from the front receptionist desk, Mel changed direction and headed that way, wondering, what now?
Dimi Wilmington sat perched on the edge of her desk, head tilted as she studied the view out the window of sweeping coastlines bisected by the magnificent Santa Ynez Mountains and a typical low-lying morning fog. Willowy, with legs long past the legal limit, Dimi had a body and face that could launch a thousand ships, make the fat lady sing, and put grown men on their knees to worship at her altar.
She used them to her full advantage, too, rarely coming across a man she didn't like-which probably explained the new whisker burn along her jaw.
Terrific. Everyone was getting lucky except Mel.
It was said she and Dimi were night and day, a modern-day odd couple. Mel being the anal one. The one who gathered worries and stress like moss on a tree. She also tended to gather the heartaches and responsibilities of others much like a fraught mother hen, bitching after all her little chicks, pecking at them until they did as she wanted them to.
Dimi was more a live-and-let-live type of soul. She cared, deeply, she'd just rather light incense and meditate than actually solve a problem. She was both a thorn in Mel's side and her closest confidant.
She wore a multicolored, filmy, gauzy miniskirt and a snug, white cap-sleeved tee with a pink heart in the center that brought the eyes to immediate attention of her brand spanking-new breasts. But the thing that never failed to amaze Mel about Dimi was that she could go all day and that bright, clean white tee would stay bright, clean white.
Mel didn't even bother to look down at her coveralls, already filthy from just a quick maintenance check on the Cessna. "What's the problem?"
Over the steam of her herbal tea and the faint smoke from the incense she'd lit, Dimi shot Mel a wry smile.
Right. What wasn't a problem was a more likely question.
The two of them went back a long ways. As teens, Mel had swept and assisted in the maintenance department, and Dimi had answered phones. Each had been far more at home here than either of their decidedly not Leave It to Beaver homes.
Sally Wells, a woman with more dream than cash, had taken them under her wing-Sally, who'd lived as she wanted, wild and free with men and fun aplenty. As their first real role model, Mel and Dimi had both worshipped the ground Sally walked on; Mel appreciating Sally's directness, the way she ran her own show and the world be damned, but for Dimi the worship had gone deeper. She'd wanted to be Sally.
Unfortunately, Sally had been unavailable to them for a long time now, and without her around, there was no one for Mel to share the stress of holding all this up with. No one except Dimi. "Tell me," she said to Dimi now. "Believe me, the day can't get worse."
Dimi put her hand over Mel's. "You look tired. You're not drinking that tea I gave you."
"I hate tea. And it's just stress."
"You only hate tea because I tell you it has healing abilities and you think that's a crock of shit." She sighed. "Money's tight again."
"You mean still. Money's tight still."
"That's all right." Dimi stood and, primping a little, played with the hem of her skirt, adjusted her top. "We have a couple of hot ones coming in today."
"Hot ones" being Dimi-code for cute, rich customers.
"What we have is an unscheduled," Mel said. "I've gotta get out there and do tie-down because God knows where Ritchie or Kellan is."
Dimi pulled out a compact and checked her gloss, ran her tongue over her teeth. "I'll do it."
"Uh-huh." Mel eyed the short, short skirt, which at every move flirted with revealing Dimi's crotch. "You're going to go get your hands dirty, risk that manicure, and tie down a plane? In that?"
Dimi smiled. "Should get me a big tip, don't you think?"
"That's not even funny."
"Hey, I'm going to hit on them anyway, might as well get something for it."
"Stop it." Mel knew Dimi was only kidding. Or half-kidding anyway. Dimi enjoyed men the way some women enjoy breathing. "I have enough to worry about."
Dimi sighed and stroked a long, wayward strand of hair from Mel's face. "We'll be fine, hon. You'll come up with something, you always do."
Right. She'd just wave her magic wand and figure it all out. And while she was at it, she'd conjure up a happily ever after for all of them as well. "The oven's down, the gas pump is acting up, and morale's getting low."
"They need a phone call from Sally."
Their gazes met for a long beat.
"You do it this time," Dimi whispered.
"Actually, I was hoping you could, from-" Mel broke off when Ernest appeared out of nowhere, shuffling past the desk, pulling his noisy cart stacked haphazardly with tools and the ever-present jar for liberating spiders.
Mel didn't know how many times she'd asked him not to walk through the lobby like that, to instead go around the outside of the hangar, where customers wouldn't have to see him, but he never listened. At least not to the stuff she wanted him to. "Ernest?"
He'd stopped to stand in front of the vending machine next to the wall map, scratching his head as he contemplated rows of candy bars. "Yeah?"
"Did you by any chance ever clean out that maintenance hangar, the one Danny wants to stock new parts in?"
"Not yet. Busy, you know."
Right. He looked really busy. She and Dimi waited until he'd made his selection, shoved the candy bar into his pocket next to his spider book, and left.
"I hate the secrets," Dimi whispered.
Yeah, and Mel just loved them. Not. She looked at the time. "I gotta go meet that flight. Then I have a flight myself, to LA."
"You're changing your clothes first, right?"
"Yes," Mel said with irritation. "Of course."
"You say that like you don't regularly forget to change from mechanic to pilot. Daily."
Mel rolled her eyes. "I'll be back by two."
Dimi nodded, looked wistfully out the window. "You're so lucky."
"Lucky?" Mel laughed in disbelief. "How exactly?"
"You get to get out of here."
"But you hate to fly," Mel reminded her. "You throw up every time."
"I know, I didn't mean ..." Dimi searched for words. "Look, don't you ever ... just want to get in the plane and, I don't know, fly off into the sunset?"
Mel just stared at her incredulously. "Never to return?"
"Well ... yeah."
North Beach was Mel's home, her life, and no, she'd never ever thought about going away and never coming back, and she'd always figured Dimi felt just the same. "Okay, what's wrong?"
Excerpted from Aussie Rules by JILL SHALVIS Copyright © 2006 by Jill Shalvis. Excerpted by permission.
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