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She didn't have time to blink. Ginny McCutcheon flew her plane low over the wide-open high plains of eastern Wyoming and was just pulling out of a loop-the-loop when she spotted another plane bearing down on her. Her evasive maneuver was pure reflexshe snapped into a vertical bank, swerving off to the right and trying to pull up, though her downward-pointed wing sliced so close to the ground that the tops of the prairie grasses slapped against its tip.
That was way too close for comfort.
Flipping upside down as she came around, Ginny twisted her head for some sign of where the other plane had gone, and spotted it in a hairpin arc behind her. What kind of maniac was flying that thing, anyway? And what was he doing in her air zone? The Dare Divas Barnstorming Troupe kept to a strict practice schedule; no one was supposed to be in her airspace.
Ginny's heart beat hard, and she felt the same painful squeeze of fright she'd felt the last time she'd nearly lost her life in the air. There had been too many suspicious incidents lately, too many close calls. First Kristy Keller's accident, then the gunshots that had narrowly missed Ginny, not to mention irregular engine troubles that had plagued
the Divas' planes. If she was the paranoid type, she might have thought someone was targeting her troupe.
Rather than risk an in-air collision, Ginny found a relatively level spot and brought the plane down to land. Her wheels didn't like the tall prairie grasses, but she wasn't about to risk crossing the flight path of the other plane by heading toward the landing strip five miles west. She struggled to inhale against the fear that clenched at her heart. If flying didn't kill her, the stress would.
As her snub-nosed stunt plane quickly shed its momentum, Ginny caught sight of the other plane again, landing on the same stretch of level groundheaded straight for her again! The other pilot was apparently trying to get out of her way, but he'd picked the same stretch of ground to land on that she had.
With no room to try to take off with the other plane in her way, Ginny threw herself into the brake, gritting her teeth as her plane finally came to a stop nose to nose with the other plane. Her feet hit the ground a moment later.
"What do you think you're doing?" she screamed as the door opened on the other aircraft. That plane clearly didn't belong to the barnstorming fleet. She'd never seen it before. Probably another reporter, maybe a news crew. They'd been everywhere since Kristy's accident, hounding the rest of the Dare Divas and looking for answers about what had happened. Ginny only wished she had answers to give themespecially since Kristy's accident had occurred when she'd been flying Ginny's plane, in Ginny's act. Guilt toyed with her fear-clenched heart. It should have been Ginny at the controls that day.
Right now, she was fixing to give the imbecile inside a piece of her mind for flying so dangerously close during her practice session. But the moment she saw the size of the boots that came through the door of the plane, Ginny realized it wasn't some sheepish, small-framed news-hound.
Two trunk-like legs followed, landing solidly in the prairie grass as a trim waist and broad shoulders ducked under the wing to approach her.
For one terrified moment, Ginny was eight years old again, running out of the house intending to scare off the neighbor's milk cow that had gotten into the garden for the fifteenth time, only to have the bovine beast turn around and point its horns at her. It hadn't been a cow that day. It had been a bull.
Fortunately, the bull had been more interested in her mother's sweet corn than in chasing Ginny, and she'd gotten away with nothing more than a skinned knee as she'd tripped over herself trying to run back inside.
But she could tell she wouldn't be so lucky today. If his determined stride was any indication, this pilot looked ready to lock horns and fight.
"What am I doing? What are you doing?" he growled. "Do you realize you almost got us both killed? Haven't you ever heard of flying in a straight line?"
Ginny's anger flared. No way was she going to stand there and let this giant of a man bully her. "Me?" she shrieked. "I was assigned to this practice zone. This is Dare Diva airspace, and you have no legal right to be here."
"Dare Diva airspace?" The pilot came to a stop less than two feet from her, towering over her, which was saying something, since at five foot ten she was taller than many men. This guy was big.
"The barnstorming flying troupe." She took a step back, peeling off her flying helmet so she could see him better. She shook out her long, red hair as it tumbled free of her helmet in a move that had become her signature on the stunt flying circuitthough anyone who'd ever tried to stuff thick, waist-length hair into a flying helmet would tell you there was no other way to free it.
Though she hadn't meant to make any sort of impression on the other pilot, she caught a second's satisfaction as his jaw dropped and he watched, dumbfounded, as her hair fell free.
Her feeling of satisfaction was immediately erased by the next words to fall from his lips. "Little Ginny McCutcheon."
Ginny's blood froze. How did he know her nameher real name? Her flying moniker was Ginger McAlister, and that was all anybody outside her hometown of Holyoake, Iowa, was supposed to know her by. "There's no Ginny McCutcheon here," she corrected him quickly.
But his eyes had turned up at the corners and he looked far too pleased with himself. "Excuse me, then. I suppose you're Ginger McAlister?"
An icy chill trickled through her veins. How did this man know both her names? Nobody in Wyoming was supposed to know her Iowa identity. And the only person in Iowa who knew the name she flew under was her older brother, Cutch, and he'd been sworn to secrecy. Ginny thought about the stray gunshots that had narrowly missed hitting her twice in the past two weeks, as well as Kristy Keller's accident, which had happened while her fellow pilot had been flying her plane.
Too many near misses.
Too many unanswered questions.
"Who are you?" Ginny glared up at the mysterious man who'd so narrowly avoided colliding with her in midair.
"Funny you should ask that." He peeled back his helmet, revealing a strong-featured face that struck Ginny first as being handsome, and then, as she struggled to think past that fact, as oddly familiar. But not one she'd seen any time lately.
"Ben McAlister." The man introduced himself and extended a beefy hand her way.
His hand hovered between them for a moment while Ginny sorted out what this new revelation meant. Ben McAlister was from Holyoake, Iowa. She'd heard all about him when he'd joined the Air Force right out of high school, going on to become a hero fighter pilot back when she was still too young to follow in his footsteps. He was the reason she'd chosen the McAlister name to fly underbecause he was the greatest pilot she'd ever known who wasn't a McCutcheon. And there was no way she was going to fly under her own name.
Swallowing hard, she shifted her helmet to her hip and took the big man's hand. She'd seen this guy march in Fourth of July parades many times, but had never come so close to him. His hand closed gently over hers and she felt her pain-clenched heart nearly stop.
Wow. Ben McAlister was shaking her hand.
What on earth was he doing in Wyoming?
"What are you doing here?" She summoned up some of the fire that had gone out when he'd taken her hand.
His hazel eyes looked a little too pleased as he smiled down at her. "Your brother sent me to bring you home."
"Whoa." Ginny pulled her hand away from his and took a couple of steps back toward her plane. "No deal."
His smile disappeared. "His wedding is two weeks from tomorrow. He wants you to be there." He had a deep, rumbling voice that reminded her of a plane engine purring smoothly with a steady tailwind.
"I'll be there," Ginny nearly shouted as the brisk Wyoming airstream whistled through the space between them as she backed away, feeling the need to escape, to put
distance between herself and anything having to do with her hometown. "It's not for over two weeks."
"But there's a shower, parties, the rehearsal." Ben's long legs brought him closer to her in a single stride. "And dress fittings."
"It's a dress. How well does it have to fit?" She shook her head, throwing off his arguments like a dog shaking off water. "I have obligations here. I'll be there in time for the rehearsal, okay?"
"Ginny." Ben's voice dipped an octave and he bent his face closer to hers. "This is important to your brother and his new wife"
But his words were cut off as the alarm on Ginny's watch began to bleat. "My training time is up," she informed Ben flatly, glad to have an excuse to end a conversation she really didn't want to be having anyway. "If we're not out of this training zone in ten minutes, you'll have another stunt pilot to tangle with."
"I can follow you in," Ben volunteered.
Ginny hadn't figured she'd lose him very easily. "Fine. Just don't crowd me."
"I'll try not to." He headed back toward his plane, pausing before he climbed into the cockpit. "By the way, that was some mighty fine flying you did up there. I thought for a second we were both done for."
Ginny tried her best not to smile, but the corners of her mouth angled up in spite of her efforts. "You, too," she said finally, and watched him climb aboard before heading back to her own plane and beginning the laborious process of stuffing her hair back inside her flight helmet in an orderly fashion.
By the time she had her head back up, Ben had gotten his plane turned around and was artfully executing a skilled takeoff from the less-than-optimum surface of the grassy plain. With his plane now out of her way, she could take off, and he could circle around and follow her in.
She took a deep breath, glad to have him gone, for the moment, at least. But even then, the pain that squeezed her chest didn't go away. The doctors she'd seen had chalked up the ever-present pain to stress, and told her to find a less frightening occupation, which she wasn't about to do. She loved stunt flying and the sense of freedom she felt when she was in the sky. Nothing would ever change that.
After making sure Ben had flown wide and clear of her intended takeoff route, Ginny got her plane into the air and headed back to the Dare Diva training headquarters, thoughts buzzing through her mind. If Ben thought he was going to get her to turn her back on her responsibilities with the Dare Divas and go back to her oppressive hometown, he was mistaken. Her training schedule had suffered enough interruptions with all the recent incidents.
As the wheels of her stunt plane touched down on the hardened soil of the Wyoming airfield, she felt her anger at Ben's interruption recede as fear clenched its fingers tighter around her heart. Maybe she was just paranoid after everything that had happened lately, but it was almost as though she could smell danger on the wind. Years before, when her grandfather had first taught her how to fly, he'd always said landing was the most dangerous part of flying. But lately Ginny had learned to expect trouble at any time.
As she taxied the small plane toward the largest hangar and through the wide-open door, she saw with a sinking feeling that the light was still out near the back, leaving the far corner of the hangar in shadowy darkness. Ginny didn't like it, but she forced herself to take slow, steady breaths as she parked her plane in the corner where it belonged, hoping to exit quickly and leave the darkness behind.
But as she jumped down from the plane, she heard a voice call. "Ginger?"
Ginger McAlisterher flying name. Since Ben had kept his promise to stay well behind her when she landed, she knew it wasn't him. He was likely still in the air. It was probably a fan, or maybe one of those nosy reporters who'd been everywhere since Kristy's accident. It seemed the Dare Divas brought trouble with them wherever they went lately.
"Yes?" She peered into the shadows, her eyes still sun-blinded from the bright sky she'd been flying in. A red orb glowed hot as someone in the darkness sucked in on a cigarette. Ginny picked up the scent over the smell of fuel and oil.
"You're not allowed to smoke in the hangar," she informed the shadowy figure. "It's a safety hazardagainst the rules."
"Rules were made to be broken," the gravelly voice said as the glowing cigarette fell to the floor. He crushed it with his boot as he advanced toward her.
Not good. Ginny loved her fans, but creepy guys who blatantly disregarded the rules were another thing entirely.
"I just want your autograph." The man's tobacco breath stung her nose as he placed his hand on her arm, his grip uncomfortably tight.
Ginny felt pain stab through her heart as a sense of panic rose inside her. They were in a dark corner of the hangar and from what she'd seen, the rest of the Dare Divas and their crew were outside or on the far side of the hangar where plane engines whirred, their high-pitched hums more than enough to drown out her voice if she cried out, even if she screamed.
Oh, so very not good.
"Just let me get a pen," Ginny said, trying to sound unconcerned as she took a step toward the light, and safety.
The hand tightened around her arm. Ouch. That was going to leave a bruise.
A silver shaft appeared.