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By Bianca D'Arc
BRAVA BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Cristine Martins
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Got that new pilot coming in today, Em. My friend at Hobby Airport says he's sharp." As the head mechanic for Praxis Air and an old family friend, Buddy Hollister treated Emily Parkington more like a daughter than one of the senior pilots and part-owners of the charter airline.
Buddy was a pilot turned mechanic who was gifted when it came to keeping jets in good working order. He was a key member of the Praxis Air team and Emily thought of him as part of the family.
"I'm glad to hear it. That last guy was awful. I hate firing people." She shivered in memory, making Buddy laugh, as she'd intended.
Opening the refrigerator in the small break room off the main repair hangar in Wichita, she grabbed a cold soda and popped the top, drinking deeply. It was hot in the huge building today.
The outer door opened and a man walked in. She could see him through the large window that separated the break room from the main area of the hangar. The temperature spiked higher as she got her first good look at the new pilot. The guy was smoking hot. Muscles filled out his tall frame to perfection and he had that confident pilot swagger down pat.
A grin revealed pearly whites as he strode across the room toward the office that was directly next door to the break room.
"I bet that's him," Buddy observed. "You better go rescue him from Sissy." The old mechanic cackled as he left the break room and headed for his kingdom—the repair bays where he was in charge of maintaining the Praxis Air fleet.
Sissy was the receptionist. She was divorcing husband number four at the moment and had been chasing all the single pilots and a few of the not-so-single ones too. No doubt she'd have her polished red hooks in the new guy the moment she laid eyes on him. It was only charitable to go save him.
Emily shook her head in disgust as she pushed through the adjoining door into the small office. There it was. Sissy had her hand on the new guy's arm as he filled out some forms. A counter separated them but that didn't stop Sissy the Merciless. Eyelashes batted and giggles abounded as she flirted for all she was worth. It was a little sad, actually.
God help her if Emily ever got so desperate to catch a man's attention. Of course, Emily's love life was nothing to crow about. A never-married workaholic was almost as pathetic to Emily's way of thinking, so who was she to cast stones?
Shrugging off her depressing thoughts, she decided to save the new guy before Sissy either scared him off or led him into the broom closet. Emily moved into the room and cleared her throat.
"Hi. I'm Emily Parkington. You're Sam Archer, right?" She walked up to the counter and held out her hand.
The new guy turned and that bright white smile dazed her for a brief moment. Whew. The man was even more potent at close range. Blond, blue eyed, and rugged, he was definitely easy on the eyes. He clasped her hand in his and the warmth of his callused grip made her weak in the knees.
"Pleased to meet you, Captain Parkington."
Oh, she liked the respect in his tone. She didn't often get that kind of response from the men she worked with. At least not until they knew who she was and that she owned a not-inconsiderable stake in the company. They treated her with more respect once they realized she could hire and fire them.
"Please, call me Emily." She remembered to smile as she regained possession of her tingling hand.
Damn. She was going to have to share a tiny cockpit with this mountain of a man. She'd have to get her inconvenient attraction to him under control.
"I'm Sam. Good to meet you."
"Sissy squared away most of your paperwork yesterday and Buddy said you did great on your check ride." She looked for a way to get him into the cockpit without making him feel like she was testing him. She was, but she didn't want him to know it.
Emily liked to do all the check rides for new pilots personally but every once in a while last minute charters interfered. When that happened, Buddy or one of the other long-time pilot employees filled in, but she still took the new pilots up on their first day to be certain they had the chops.
"The jet you passed on the way in was released from repair this morning. How about we take her up for a shakedown ride before we tackle the remainder of the paperwork?"
His charming smile only deepened. "Love to." He motioned for her to precede him out the door and into the hangar. The man had good manners, she'd give him that.
"You've had some military experience, haven't you?" A short stint in the Army was listed on his employment application and he definitely gave off the soldier vibe. Most of the guys she flew with who'd been in the service were Air Force or even former naval aviators. She didn't have much experience with Army guys.
"I was in for a couple of years," he agreed. Like many of the ex-military men she worked with, Sam Archer appeared to be a man of few words.
"I respect that. Thank you for serving." And she meant it too. She'd always admired those who chose to serve in the military and probably would've joined herself, if not for extenuating family circumstances. The death of her mother, for one. Her pesky brother and his Air Force aspirations, for another.
"My pleasure, ma'am."
She could tell he meant it. There was something in his voice that said more than his simple words.
"You miss it? The Army, I mean." She looked at him as they walked across the hangar. He was a tall man with long legs and normally she would've had to take two steps for every one of his but he was measuring his gait to accommodate her, which was extremely thoughtful.
One of his eyebrows quirked upward as he returned her gaze. "I loved everything about the service. The adventure. The travel."
"The waking up at oh-dark-thirty to exercise in the rain," she joked. "My brother is in the Air Force. He's told me a lot about that kind of thing. Or should I say, he's complained to me about it over and over again."
She chuckled at the memory and Sam grinned back at her. Time seemed to stand still as she gazed into his eyes.
A dropped hammer clattered loudly somewhere on the concrete floor of the hangar, breaking the spell. Wow. She really had to get control of herself around this guy if they were going to be flying together.
"I never mind physical training. PT is something I'd do anyway—drill sergeant pushing me harder or not."
She'd just bet he would. And probably did. The man had to be the most physically fit specimen she'd ever encountered in the flesh. Up close she could see the bulges of his muscles against the cotton of his shirt. When he raised his arms and those giant biceps flexed, she feared for his seams.
"So be all that you can be isn't just an ad slogan to you, eh?"
He joined in her laughter as they approached the jet she was aiming for.
"I've always liked a challenge. The Army gave me that. I think this job will too." His answer was only the slightest bit cagey.
She turned to look up at him suspiciously. She was getting mixed feelings about him. Usually a good judge of character, she trusted her instincts on new hires and people she met in her work, but she couldn't read him well at all. Something about him set her radar off. It could be the all too feminine discomfort of being so close to a devastatingly attractive male. Or it could be something far more sinister. Too many odd things had been going on at Praxis Air of late.
She didn't know this man. She hadn't hired him. That decision had been made by someone higher up the food chain. There weren't many people who had more pull in the company her mother had co-founded than she did, so her suspect list was short. All she knew was that something funny was going on at her beloved airline and she was going to figure out what it was come hell or high water.
This new guy could be innocent or he could have been brought in to further the conspiracy—whatever it was. She feared it had something to do with drug running, which would destroy the company if they got caught by the authorities. She couldn't let that happen. She'd been discreetly trying to find out what was going on for the past few weeks and was planning to handle it quietly, once she knew who was involved and exactly what they were doing. She'd hold her judgment about this handsome new pilot until she got to know him better.
"Well, the Lear 35 is challenging enough for me, but I've read your file. I noticed that you recently got the Type Rating for this jet. What were you flying before?" She knew, of course, but she wanted to hear it from him.
A pilot's log book recorded everything about their time spent in the air. It was sacred to each pilot. Something they kept with them at all times when on the job and reread to bring back memories of their early days. She reminisced over her logs from when she was a teen every once in a while. Those times spent with her mother, learning how to fly, were some of the happiest moments in her life.
"Cargo planes mostly. Big lumbering whales. I wanted something a little sleeker in my next job. I've heard the Lear 35 is a fun ride."
"That she is," Emily readily agreed. "Sturdy and dependable but small and fast. We fly a couple different configurations but they're all basically the same plane. This one is outfitted to carry rock stars." She gestured for him to board the little jet through the passenger hatch.
"Ladies first, ma'am." He motioned for her to precede him, those military manners coming to the fore.
She didn't want to argue when he was trying to be polite, so she went ahead, uncomfortably aware of him checking out her ass as she entered the passenger compartment. She stood to one side of the door so he could get the full effect when he cleared the doorway.
He whistled, clearly impressed. "Rock stars. You weren't kidding."
She looked around the luxury compartment with a feeling of pride. She owned a part of this gorgeous aircraft. This one and all the others that were currently either parked outside or off on assignments somewhere. A fleet of fifty-odd jets built up from one lonely Cessna her mother had piloted back in the early days of the company.
"Rock stars, Arab sheiks, European royalty, the odd politician with lavish tastes. We've transported a lot of strange characters in this jet. I started calling it the rock star ride and the name stuck. You should see the back compartment."
They walked past the luxurious couch and table arrangement on their way to the rear of the aircraft. The table was essentially a bar, with slots for high-end liquor bottles and crystal stemware. It was all secured as it would be on a boat, against the natural motion of the aircraft while in flight. Everything was sparkling and shiny, cleaned within an inch of its life. Even she was impressed, and she'd seen it many times. She opened the door to the back compartment and entered.
"You've got to be kidding me." Sam's voice came to her as she watched his reaction to the room.
It was essentially a bedroom. A huge bed took up most of the space, made up with the finest silk sheets in a deep burgundy color.
"We have different color sheets depending on the tastes—or sometimes the coat of arms—of the charter. Color choice is one of the riders in the contract. Goofy, huh?" She moved into the room and fixed a wrinkle on one corner of the soft bedspread. "You'd be amazed how picky some rich folks are. They want everything to their exact specifications."
She half expected some off color comment about being in a bedroom so soon after meeting. Most pilots who looked as good as this one—and many of those who were a whole lot less good looking—fancied themselves ladies men, looking only for their next conquest. Which was why she'd made it a policy to never get involved with a pilot.
"Being rich has its perks."
When he made no further comment, Emily smiled and led the way out of the cabin. He'd passed a test, though he didn't know it. For that matter, she hadn't realized she'd been testing him. Well. Wonders never ceased. It seemed like maybe she was flirting with the idea of breaking her own rule.
That wouldn't do. They had to work together. Spend hours and hours in a small cockpit. And there were bad things going on at her beloved airline.
So why now? Why did the hottest man she'd set eyes on in years have to show up on her doorstep at this particular moment?
Something was fishy here. Had to be. Emily had never been lucky in love. Hell, she'd never been lucky in like. She had a dismal track record with men. For Mr. Perfect to show up as a new employee at the same time she started to suspect something was very wrong in the company couldn't be a coincidence.
"Let's do the pre-flight inspection together," she suggested as she headed for the hatch.
"One walk around, coming up."
She frowned when he used the slang term. Normally the first officer would be doing the preflight inspection, commonly referred to as a walk around, to check for any obvious signs of trouble with the aircraft. This first time they flew together, Emily would do it with him.
The official testing had begun.
Sam liked the way his new lady boss handled herself as she subtly watched him during the usual preflight rituals. She'd let him take the lead on the walk around, asking questions and pointing out a few things peculiar to this particular jet. She definitely knew her aircraft. Sam was impressed with her knowledge and obvious intelligence, even as he chafed at the bit to get down to the business of his assignment. There were bad guys to catch and a possible conspiracy to uncover, not to mention a potential zombie horde to stop in its tracks.
Emily Parkington was not only a means to that end, but until he could clear her for certain, she was also a suspect. A very charming suspect, but a suspect nonetheless. She wasn't hard on the eyes either. Pretty in a girl next door way, her bouncy brunette hair and soft hazel green eyes were gorgeous. She was short, compared to him, but he guessed she was about average for women. Somewhere around five foot five or thereabouts. She had a trim figure with curves in all the right places. Sam had noticed how pretty she was right off the bat but he couldn't let that influence his investigation. She was still under suspicion. Just like everybody else at Praxis Air.
She'd let him take the stick on takeoff and he'd enjoyed the roar of the little jet under his command. She'd also watched him like a hawk as he went through each of the checklists necessary to complete before they could begin taxiing down the runway.
Sam was used to scrutiny. He hadn't become a Special Forces officer without lots and lots of training and testing throughout his career. But being evaluated by a female superior officer was somewhat rare in his experience and this particular woman had the unnerving ability to get under his skin.
Her insistence on using exact terms for everything made him want to joke around with her, just to see if he could bust through her slightly officious exterior. The little crease between her eyebrows and slight pucker of her lips made him want to kiss her annoyance away.
Damn. That was a disturbingly strong thought. Sure, she was pretty, but Sam had a job to do here. He couldn't afford to have his head turned by a pretty face, no matter how appealing. Focus. That's what he had to do. Focus on the mission. The team was depending on him to follow this lead. It was the best one they had at the moment and it needed to be investigated as deeply and as quickly as possible.
Before another outbreak happened. Each time the creatures appeared, loss of innocent life followed. Each instance had been worse than the last and the biggest danger of all was if the creators of the deadly contagion managed to sell it. Hostile governments or terrorists, those unethical scientists and profiteers didn't care who they sold the technology to. It would go to the highest bidder if Sam and the rest of the team didn't stop them in time. The longer they remained free, the more dangerous it was. Given enough time, the transaction would be completed and the genie forever let out of its bottle. Sam had to work fast to prevent that and his first step was already underway.
Excerpted from Dead Alert by Bianca D'Arc Copyright © 2011 by Cristine Martins. Excerpted by permission of BRAVA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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