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Here we go again.
Lauren expelled an exasperated breath and punched the elevator button for the top floor. Getting called to her half brother's office was a lot like the way she imagined getting called to the principal's office might have been if she'd ever dared to get into trouble in school.
Trent didn't want her here—an opinion he'd made abundantly clear in the six weeks since their mother had used her position as president of the board of directors and the company's largest stockholder to force him to hire Lauren as a pilot for Hightower Aviation Management Corporation.
Trent couldn't fire her, but he'd done everything in his power to make her quit. He seemed to relish personally doling out lousy assignments no one else wanted: the obnoxious clients, red-eye flights and landings at substandard airports. Today's summons was bound to deliver more of the same. But he'd soon learn she could handle anything he dished out.
The elevator stopped on the third floor and two suit-clad women boarded. Security badges labeled them HAMC employees. Their cool gazes raked Lauren's clothing, making her wish she'd taken time to don her pilot's uniform, but she could hardly ride her Harley in a skirt. And if these two had received a memo from her half brother ordering them to make her work life a living hell, they'd discover she didn't care.
She'd never had anyone hate her before, but besides the chill factor from other employees, she had three of her four newly discovered half siblings wishing she'd disappear. Who could blame them? She was a walking, talking reminder of their mother's infidelity, the child Jacqueline Hightower had borne to her pilot lover while stillmarried to their father, an embarrassing dirty secret Jacqui had managed to keep tucked away in another state for twenty-five years.
The door opened on the tenth floor and the sour-faced women disembarked. As the doors closed again Lauren fought the urge to hit the down button, go back to Florida and forget her new family. Too bad the Hightowers, bless their cold, moneygrubbing hearts, were the only relatives she had left. For her father's sake, for Falcon Air's sake, she'd suck it up and deal with any and all unpleasant attitudes until she had the information about her father's death that only her mother could provide.
Had he committed suicide or had his crash been an accident? Her mother had been the last to talk to him. If he'd been considering something so desperate, surely he'd have given Jacqui some clues? But, damn her, Jacqui wasn't talking. And until the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board and the insurance company finished their investigations Lauren's hands were bound by red tape.
She didn't want to believe her father had deliberately ended his life, but the alternative was even more horrific. She'd helped him build the experimental plane he'd crashed. If his accident had been caused by an equipment failure, then she could be partly to blame.
Grief and guilt squeezed her lungs and burned her throat. She swallowed the caustic emotions. The elevator doors opened to the executive floor. She took a deep, bracing breath and readied herself for yet another battle.
Only for you, Daddy.
Tucking her riding gloves into the motorcycle helmet dangling from her fingertips, she stepped out of the compartment. Her lug-soled Harley boots sank into thick carpeting, another reminder that she wasn't in Daytona anymore. The luxurious Hightower high-rise was a far cry from the concrete floors and drafty metal hangars she'd grown up in.
She stretched her lips into as big a smile as she could muster and unzipped her jacket as she approached "The Sphinx's" desk. Getting her brother's administrative assistant to crack an expression—any expression—had become a mission. No success this time, either. The woman should play poker for a living.
"Hi, Becky. The boss wants to see me." Becky—a warm and friendly name for a cold woman. Talk about irony.
Becky looked pointedly at her watch. "I'll inform him you've finally arrived."
Lauren bit her tongue. Trent was lucky she'd answered her cell phone once she'd recognized his office number on caller ID. But she was making an effort to be civil.
She studied the fresh-cut flower arrangement on the credenza while Becky did her thing. The massive bouquet had probably cost as much as an hour's worth of jet fuel. Pretty, but a total waste of money, in Lauren's opinion.
"You may go in." Becky's stiff words pulled Lauren's attention away from the cloying blooms that reminded her of her father's funeral.
Such formality. Back home Lauren had knocked and entered her father's and Uncle Lou's offices at Falcon Air without playing the stupid Simon Says game. They'd had no secrets… or so she'd thought.
"Thanks." Lauren pushed open the heavy six-panel door of what she'd come to call the throne room. Her half brother sat behind his football field-size desk in his massive leather chair looking as arrogant and unwelcoming as ever. "You called?"
Darn straight he had. He'd interrupted her motorcycle ride along Knoxville's back roads. He couldn't know how much she'd been enjoying blowing away her tension by cruising along the curvy, hilly terrain after a lifetime of Daytona's flat, straight streets. She'd be damned if she'd let him know he'd ruined her day.
His upper lip hitched in disapproval as he took in her riding gear.
The back of Lauren's neck pricked. She turned quickly to her right. A raven-haired thirtysomething man rose from the visitor chair. Alert dark eyes lasered into hers before his gaze taxied over her black leather jacket, pants, boots and back to the helmet hanging from her left hand. He had a power and charisma thing going that she would have found attractive in other circumstances.
While he assessed her, she cataloged his above-average height, his wide shoulders and a don't-mess-with-me stubborn jaw. From the perfect fit of his black suit she guessed he was an HAMC customer. And if he was here for her, then he was probably also an arrogant jackass no matter how handsome he might be. Big brother had yet to assign her any other kind of client.
Taking the initiative, she offered her hand. "I'm Lauren Lynch. And you are…?"
"Gage Faulkner." His hand engulfed hers in a firm, warm grip that made it difficult to inhale. She wondered how he'd managed to squish the air from her lungs with a handshake and how to abort that little trick. She blinked and gently tugged her arm, but he didn't release her.
There was no welcome in his expression as he looked beyond her shoulder to her half brother. "She looks too young to be a commercial pilot."
"You know I'd never set you up with someone who wasn't qualified," Trent replied.
Irked at being talked about as if she wasn't there, Lauren gave her wrist a quick twist and hard yank, breaking Faulkner's hold the way she'd been taught by an airport security guard she'd once dated. "I'm twenty-five. I've been licensed since my sixteenth birthday, and I've logged more than ten thousand hours."
Faulkner's cool gaze found hers again, and she noted flecks of gold in the brown of his irises. A tight smile twitched his lips. Nice lips. Kissable lips.
The warning flashed in her brain like airfield lamps, shutting down that runway. Getting involved with a client was grounds for firing. Was Trent setting her up with a gorgeous guy to take her down? She wouldn't put it past him since all his other strategies had failed.
She cut her brother a suspicious look. Did he think she couldn't resist an attractive face? Knucklehead didn't know she'd been fending off men since puberty. Not that she was beautiful or anything, but she wasn't ugly, and the man-to-woman ratio at small airports left a lot of men lonely and looking. She'd had her father and Uncle Leo as growling watchdogs, but they hadn't always been around. She'd learned a few lessons the hard way.
Trent hit her with his usual joy-killing glare. "Gage, please excuse Lauren's attire. I assure you HAMC has a dress code."
Her spine snapped erect. "It's my day off. I wasn't sitting at home in my uniform waiting for your call. When you said urgent I came straight in instead of making you cool your jets while I went home to change."
Faulkner choked a noise that sounded a lot like a laugh. She shot him a warning look. He wiped his jaw, hiding his mouth, but his eyes glimmered with amusement. For some reason that irritated Lauren even more. Their family feud was none of his business.
"Sit down, Lauren." Trent's superior tone set her teeth on edge. One of these days someone was going to knock the landing gear out from under his ego. She hoped she'd be around to witness him biting the asphalt. Unlikely she'd have the pleasure since she planned to vacate Knoxville and abandon her polar bear relatives as soon as she got what she needed from her mother.
Lauren sat in the guest chair beside Faulkner's. A subtle but pleasant trace of his spicy cologne teased her nose. She focused on her brother, the arrogant butt-head in charge. "What's so urgent it couldn't wait until I clock in tomorrow?"
"Gage needs a pilot. You're it."
That was her job, the job of any HAMC pilot, for that matter. So why did that telling itch crawling up her neck warn her that this wasn't a regular assignment?
"What and where will I be flying?"
Probably an albatross to some mosquito-infested, potholed, mud runway or an unheated cargo carrier to the frozen tundra, if her half brother continued true to form.
"Gage will use a variety of aircraft, depending on the length of his trip and the size of the team accompanying him. The majority of the time you'll fly a small to midsize jet, but occasionally a helicopter or Cessna."
Excitement gurgled through her before she could dam it. The job description sounded too good to be true—especially since Hightower Aviation limited its pilots to flying only one type of aircraft so they'd be familiar with the controls. That had been her primary grievance since she'd arrived. She lived for variety and loved testing the abilities of different airplanes.
Her half brother was being nice and bending company policy. Had his conscience finally kicked in? She studied his impassive face, not buying altruism as his motive for one second.
"Trent assures me you can handle whatever I need."
Faulkner's velvety voice snagged her attention, winching her gaze back to him. He meant flightwise, didn't he?
Her stomach did a weird flutter thing that made her question the sanitation grade of the roadside diner she and her neighbors had stopped at for lunch.
"I'm certified to fly almost anything civilian with wings or rotors. Mastering different aircraft is kind of a hobby of mine." More like an obsession. "What's the catch?"
Did she imagine a quick stiffening of those broad shoulders? The slight hesitation as he pursed that attention-getting mouth? "If you fly for me, you'll be on call 24/7, beginning tomorrow morning at five."
Again, standard procedure for HAMC pilots. They all flew on four hours notice or less. Something wasn't right here. "And?"
"You'll be working exclusively for Gage."
Trent's statement had her head whipping his way as the meaning of his bombshell sank in. "You're taking me off rotation?"
"I'm giving you a special assignment."
The bully was farming her out to someone else, and there wasn't one thing she could say about it in front of the client, unless she wanted to get fired for insubordination. She refused to mouth off and give Trent the satisfaction of an easy way out.
Gritting her teeth, she fought her seething anger. Being cut from the schedule was like being sent to her room or put in time out. And damn it, she hadn't done anything wrong to earn such shoddy treatment. Working for only one client would limit her hours and her pay. Her mother would never allow—
No. She wouldn't go to her mother. Their relationship was too new, too tentative and too volatile for Lauren to ask Jacqui to choose sides between her oldest son and her youngest daughter, and Lauren couldn't afford to alienate her mother yet. This turf war was between her and Trent, and Lauren refused to let him win.
Tightening her grip on her helmet strap rather than around her half brother's thick neck as she'd prefer, she stared him down. "I'll be the pilot-in-command instead of first officer?"
Her idiot brother had limited her to flying as first officer instead of the pilot-in-command. She hadn't flown in the copilot seat in years, and the pilots he'd made her fly with often had fewer qualifications than she did. But she'd accepted the entry-level position while she earned her certifications in the models and equipment new to her. She could endure any indignity as long as it benefited her in the end—even playing nice with her mother.
Trent tossed his pen onto his blotter. "None of the aircraft Gage has requested require a copilot."
He threw her a sweet bone of concession to offset the bitter deal he was forcing down her throat. "None of your other HAMC pilots is assigned a one-on-one job."
"My other pilots don't have your…varied experience." He made the comment sound like an insult instead of the compliment it would have been coming from any other employer.
Don't let him rattle you. You know that's what he wants. "How long is the assignment?"
"For as long as Gage needs you. Becky has your immediate schedule and plane assignments." Trent rose and indicated the door, dismissing her.
She'd learned early on that arguing with Trent was a waste of time. Eager to escape the blockhead's presence as well as see what and where she'd be flying, Lauren sprang to her feet. The upside was HAMC had some sweet planes that her brother had yet to let her touch. Maybe she'd get behind the controls of a few.
Faulkner unfolded his long body beside her, making her aware of his height and the smooth, athletic way he moved. He towered over her as he offered his hand. "I look forward to flying with you, Lauren."
His chilly tone belied his words and made her wonder if Trent had poisoned yet another mind against her. She reluctantly put her hand in his. That same breath-stealing surge shot through her again, and something flickered in his eyes, making her wonder if he felt it, too—whatever it was. Didn't matter. That wasn't a trip she'd be taking.
"I'll do my best to deliver smooth, punctual flights." Ripping her hand free, she spun on her heel and hustled her boots out of the throne room. Killjoy Trent shadowed her to The Sphinx's desk.
"Lauren, Gage is a close personal friend." He pitched his voice low enough not to carry back through the open door of his office. "Don't blow this or you're out of a job."
Ah. The catch. She rocked back on her heels. Trent had assigned her to work for a spy—one who would help him find grounds to get rid of her.