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He pulled back on the yoke, pushed the throttle forward and sliced through the clouds. He dived, leveled off and climbed, listening intently to the engine all the while, the control held loosely in his hands. This old Piper Cherokee was soaring like a kite at eighteen hundred feet. She had a lot of years left in her.
The same couldn't be said for all the planes he flew. The first time he'd executed an emergency landing he'd used a closed freeway outside of Detroit. Last month he'd had to set a Cessna down on a godforsaken strip of dirt in the Texas hill country. He'd never lost a plane, though, and was considered one of the best independent test pilots in his field.
He wasn't fearless. He was relentless. He couldn't take all the credit for that, though. He never forgot that.
When he was finished putting the Piper through her paces, he headed down, out of the clouds. He followed the Chestnut River west, then banked south above the tallest church spire in Orchard Hill. Halfway between the city-limit sign and the country airstrip was Sully's Orchard. It was where Noah grew up, and where he collected his mail every month or so when he flew through.
He buzzed the orchard on his way by, as he always did when he came home, and tipped his wing when his oldest brother, Marsh, came running out the back door of the old cider house, his ball cap waving. Their mother used to say Marsh and Noah had been born looking up—Marsh to their apple trees and Noah to the sky above them. The second oldest, Reed, stepped out of the office, shading his eyes with his right hand. Tall, blond and shamelessly confident, he waved, too.
Those two deserved the credit for Noah's success, for they'd given up their futures after their parents died in an icy pileup when Noah was fifteen and their baby sister, Madeline, was twelve. Noah hadn't made it easy for them, either. Truancy when he was fifteen, speeding and curfew violations when he was sixteen, drinking long before it was legal. They never gave up on him, and helped him make his dream of flying come true. Maybe someday he would find a way to repay them.
He still enjoyed getting a rise out of them from time to time, but today he didn't subject them to any grandstanding or showing off. He simply flashed his landing lights hello and started toward the airstrip a few miles away. He'd barely gotten turned around when a movement on the ground caught his eye.
A woman was hurrying across the wide front lawn. She was wearing a jacket and had a cumbersome-looking bag slung over each shoulder. He tipped his wing hello, but instead of looking up, she ducked.
That was odd, Noah thought. Not the snub. That he took in stride. But it was the middle of June, and too warm for a jacket of any kind.
And not even company used the Sullivans' front door.
Thirty years ago Tom Bender looked out across his ramshackle rural airstrip five miles east of Orchard Hill, Michigan, and saw his future. Today the pasture that had once been a bumpy runway, where he'd landed his first airplane, was a diamond-in-the-rough airfield operation with tarmac runways and hangars for commuter planes, helicopters, charters and hobbyists.
With the stub of a cold cigar clamped between his teeth and all that was left of a sparse comb-over swirling in the June breeze, he was waiting when Noah rolled to a stop along the edge of the runway. "How'd she do?" Tom asked as soon as Noah climbed down.
Running his hand reverently along the underside of the Piper's right wing, Noah said, "She handled like the prima donna she was destined to become."
"I'm glad to hear it. The paperwork's on the clipboard where it always is," Tom said, his attention already turning to the biplane coming in for a landing on the other runway. "As soon as you fill it out, Em will cut you a check."
With that check, Noah would make the final payment on the loan for his Airfield Operations Specialist training, a loan he'd been whittling away at for nine years. Anticipating the satisfaction he would feel when he read Paid in Full on his tattered IOU, he headed toward the small block building that comprised the customer waiting area and Tom's office.
All eight chairs were empty and Tom's wife, Emma, was verifying a reservation over the phone on the other side of the counter. She waved as Noah took the clipboard from the peg behind Tom's desk and lowered himself into a cracked leather chair beside it.
He'd barely started on the checklist when the airstrip's best mechanic moseyed inside. "You aren't going to believe what I heard today, Noah," Digger Brown said before the door even closed. As tall as Noah, Digger had a good start on a hardy paunch he was in the habit of patting. "You care to guess?"
Noah shook his head without looking up. "I'm in a hurry, Dig."
"Lacey's back in town."
Noah's ears perked up and the tip of his pen came off the page. Lacey was in Orchard Hill? For a few moments, he completely forgot what he'd been doing.
Digger was wearing a know-itall grin when Noah looked up. "I figured that'd get your attention."
A few grades behind Noah, Lacey Bell used to walk to school with a camera around her neck and a chip on her shoulder. Back then she'd worn her dark hair short and her jeans tight. Noah had been doing his best to get kicked out of the eleventh grade, so other than the fact that the boys her age used to taunt her, he hadn't paid her a lot of attention. He'd heard a lot about her, though. Whether in bars, at air shows or loitering around watercoolers, men liked to talk. They'd said she was easy, bragging about their conquests the way they bragged about golf scores and fishing trips and cars. Noah's relationship with Lacey had taught him what liars men could be.
One night after he'd come home following his Airfield Operations Specialist training in Florida, he'd noticed her sitting on the steps that led to the apartment over the bar where she'd lived with her father. They'd talked, him at the bottom of those rickety stairs, her at the top. He'd been twenty and by the end of the night he'd been completely enamored by an eighteen-year-old girl with dark hair, a sharp mind, a smart mouth and a smile she didn't overuse. When he returned the next night, she moved down a few steps and he moved up. By the third night, they sat side by side.
She was the only girl he'd ever known who'd understood his affinity for the sky. She'd left Orchard Hill two-and-a-half years ago after the worst argument they'd ever had. Coming home hadn't been the same for Noah since.
"I wondered if you'd already heard, or if Lacey's return was news to you, too," Digger said.
"Where would I have heard that? Air-traffic control?" Noah asked, for he'd spent the past month crop dusting in Texas, and Digger knew it.
"There's no need to get huffy," Digger groused. "Maybe you ought to pay Lacey a visit. I'll bet she could put a smile on your face. Wait, I forgot. You're just a notch on her bedpost nowadays, aren't ya?"
Ten years ago, after saying something like that, Digger would have been wearing the wrench he was carrying. Luckily for everybody, Noah had developed a little willpower over the years.
Eventually, Digger grew bored with being ignored and sauntered back outside where the guys on the grounds' crew were moving two airplanes around on the tarmac. Noah's mind wandered to the last time he'd seen Lacey, a year ago.
He'd been home to attend the air show in Battle Creek. That same weekend Lacey had been summoned from Chicago to her father's bedside after he'd suffered a massive heart attack. Noah had gone to the burial a few days later to pay his respects. Late that night, she'd answered his knock on her door and, like so many times before, they'd wound up in her bed. She'd been spitting mad in the morning, more angry with herself than at him, but mad was mad, and she'd told him the previous night had been a mistake she had no intention of repeating. She'd lit out of Orchard Hill again with little more than her camera the same day.
Now, if Digger was right, she was back in town.
Thoughts of her stayed with Noah as he finished the paperwork and pocketed the check Em Bender handed him. For a second or two he considered knocking on Lacey's door and inviting her out to celebrate with him. Then he remembered the way she'd stuck her hands on her hips and lifted her chin in defiance that morning after her father's funeral.
As tempting as seeing her again was, Noah had his pride. He didn't go where he wasn't wanted. So instead, he pointed his truck toward the family orchard that, to this day, felt like home.
The Great Lakes were said to be the breath of Michigan. As Noah crested the hill and saw row upon row of neatly pruned apple trees with their crooked branches, gnarled bark and sturdy trunks, he was reminded of all the generations of orchard growers who'd believed their trees were its soul.
He parked his dusty blue Chevy in his old spot between Marsh's shiny SUV and Reed's Mustang, and entered the large white house through the back door, the way he always did. Other than the take-out menus scattered across the countertops, the kitchen was tidy. He could hear the weather report droning from the den—Marsh's domain. Reed was most likely in his home office off the living room.
Since the den was closer, Noah stopped there first. Marsh glanced at him and held up a hand, in case Noah hadn't learned to keep quiet when the weather report was on.
Six-and-a-half years older than Noah, Marsh had been fresh out of college when their parents were killed so tragically. It couldn't have been easy taking on the family business and a little sister who desperately needed her mother, and two younger brothers, one of whom was hell-bent on ruining his own life. Despite everything Noah had put him through, Marsh looked closer to thirty than thirty-six.
When the weatherman finally broke for a commercial, Noah pushed away from the doorway where he'd been leaning and said, "What's a guy got to do to get a hello around here?"
Marsh made no apologies as he muted the TV and got to his feet. He was on his way across the room to clasp Noah in a bear hug when a strange noise stopped him in his tracks.
Noah heard it, too. What the hell was it?
He spun out of the den, Marsh right behind him, and almost collided with Reed. "Do you hear that?" Reed asked.
As tall as the other two, but blond, Reed was always the first to ask questions and the first to reach his own conclusions. He'd been at Notre Dame when their parents died. He'd come home to Orchard Hill, too, as soon as he'd finished college. Noah owed him as much as he owed Marsh.
"It sounds like it's coming from right outside the front door," Reed said.
Marsh cranked the lock and threw open the door. He barreled through first, the other two on his heels. All three stopped short and stared down at the baby screaming at the top of his lungs on the porch.
A baby. Was on their porch.
Dressed all in blue, he had wisps of dark hair and an angry red face. He was strapped into some sort of seat with a handle, and was wailing shrilly. He kicked his feet. On one he wore a tiny blue sock. The other foot was bare. The strangest thing about him, though, was that he was alone.
Marsh, Reed and Noah had been told they were three fine specimens of the male species. Two dark-haired and one fair, all were throwbacks to past generations of rugged Sullivan men. The infant continued to cry pitifully, obviously unimpressed.
Noah was a magician in the cockpit of an airplane. Marsh had an almost ethereal affinity for his apple trees. Reed was a wizard with business plans and checks and balances. Yet all three of them were struck dumb while the baby cried in earnest.
He was getting worked up, his little fisted hands flailing, his legs jerking, his mouth wide open. In his vehemence, he punched himself in the nose.
Just like that he quieted.
But not for long. Skewing his little face, he gave the twilight hell.
Reed was the first to recover enough to bend down and pick the baby up, seat and all. The crying abated with the jiggling motion. Suddenly, the June evening was eerily still. In the ensuing silence, all three brothers shared a look of absolute bewilderment.