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"You'll never catch a husband if you keep messing with that plane."
Maggie Daniels bumped her head against the instrument panel, the memory of her mother's words at the breakfast table faintly ringing in her ears. She leaned against the weathered pilot's seat, her fingers lifting to the knot forming at her hairline. Well, someone had to get her plane, Old Blue, up and running or Daniels's Crop Dusting would be permanently grounded.
The deep timbre of a man's voice rumbled against the worn-pine hangar like her two-seater right before takeoff. Hidden from the intruder's view, Maggie peeked over the cockpit. Less than a wingspan away, an unfamiliar man stood with his back to her. A field of khaki cotton stretched across his broad back, his olive suit coat flung over his shoulder like a kite's tail.
What's a flyboy doing in my hangar?
"There's no telling where the woman is at." The plane shifted slightly as he leaned against its nose. "I've got other things to do than stand around here."
Heat crept up Maggie's neck and into her cheeks. Why was it that men, at least the ones she knew, didn't seem to have a patient bone in their bodies? Always assuming that a girl was more interested in what she put on her head rather than what she put in it? She poked a stray curl into the wool binding of her snood. Well, this war had changed all that, and if she could put her two cents in, she would say it's about time.
She grabbed the leather handrail and pulled herself upright. "Lookin' for me, mister?"
The man turned. Steel-blue eyes stared over darkened lenses, sending her midsection into a tailspin. Taking a deep breath, Maggie climbed out of the cockpit and shimmied off the wing.
"So, you're my new pilot?"
The question irked her. "That depends." Maggie leaned back against Old Blue. "Who are you?"
The man stepped closer and extended his hand. "Captain Wesley Hicks."
First rule of wartrust no one. Maggie stared at his outstretched hand. "Could I see some ID, please?"
He reached into his jacket, his mouth a grim line as he pulled out a worn leather wallet. He extracted a blue card and handed it to her.
Maggie skimmed over the typewritten information before settling on the black-and-white photo. The grainy photograph couldn't blur the determined set of the man's jaw or the sharp intelligence lighting his eyes. Something told her she'd have to watch out for this one. She handed it back to him. "So what brings you all the way out here, Captain Hicks?"
He pocketed his wallet. "Major Evans thought it would be a good idea if I met you before you continue your training on the B-29."
"No disrespect, but I'm home on family business." She patted the run-down crop duster, the feel of warm metal beneath her fingertips more steady than her life had been in the last few months.
"My condolences on your uncle."
"Thank you." Maggie stared out the hangar door toward the house, a gold star hung proudly in the front window. It still didn't seem real that she would never see Jackson again, at least not this side of heaven. She gave the antiquated plane one last pat before dropping her hand to her side. Blue had been Jackson's responsibility before he'd joined the air force to fly bombing raids over occupied Europe.
"I have to be honest with you." The captain cleared his throat, jarring her away from her somber thoughts. "You're not quite what I expected."
The gruffness in his voice put Maggie on alert. "What exactly were you expecting, Captain?"
"When I was given the assignment to train Air Transport Command pilots for the B-29, I didn't know I'd have a woman in the ranks."
Maggie stretched to her full height and looked up. He towered over her like a hundred-year-old pine. She pressed her lips together. "Is that a problem, Captain?"
A muscle in his throat jerked as he glanced at her. "Not unless you make it one."
"Why would I?" She balled up her hands to keep from shaking her fist at him. "I'm only trying to serve my country the best way I know how, transporting planes to airfields all over the country so that able-bodied men can be assigned to squadrons on the front."
"I hope that's true, because we're not talking crop dusters here, Ace." Flinging his coat on the wing of the plane, the captain tugged at his tie as if it were a noose around his neck. "This is the big leagues."
Maggie opened her mouth then clamped it shut. She refused to lose her temper with this man, not when she wanted the chance to pilot one of the first B-29's to roll off the Bell Bomber Plant's assembly line. She had to be in that jump seat if only to prove to her family that she could.
Maggie took in a deep breath. "I've been briefed on the importance of the B-29 to our boys in the Pacific."
"Then you're aware of the problems we've been having."
She ground her back teeth together. What did this guy think, that she woke up one morning and figured she'd fly planes on a lark? "I've spent the better part of the winter working with the guys on the problems with the safe seal tank. It took us a while, but we think we got the fuel leak problem licked."
"Sounds like you're up to speed." The captain turned, glancing toward the house. "How about your folks? What do they think about all of this?"
If I were a man, Wesley Hicks wouldn't even think of asking me such a question! She marched over to the workbench. Momma and Daddy had never kept it a secret that they wished she was settled with a family of her own. But they also understood her desire to use her abilities in a time when qualified male pilots were needed on the front. When she told them of her decision to sign on with the Women Air Force Service Pilots, a civilian group of women pilots known as the WASP, they had wholeheartedly supported her. Yes, Maggie had heard the concern in her father's voice as he prayed over her at the train station the morning she left for Sweetwater.
But she also felt she had earned her parents' respect for the first time in her life.
If only the rest of her family and friends had as much faith in her calling.
Maggie grabbed a wrench from the table. "Momma and Daddy don't have a problem with it."
"Are you sure?"
She closed her eyes. Lord, this man makes my blood boil. Drawing in a breath through her nostrils, she opened her eyes, a flutter coming to life at the pit of her stomach. "Captain, if my parents were worried, they would've never let me near a plane in the first place."
"What about a boyfriend?" The captain grinned, as if the thought of her having someone special in her life was a novel idea. "Got some Joe over there in the trenches, counting the days before he comes back to your welcoming arms?"
The nerve of this man. "Since when did my private life become any of your business?"
"Since the brass assigned you to my class." He crossed his arms over a massive chest that reminded her of the green fields where she often landed. "The last thing I need is some weepy-eyed female disrupting our training."
Finally, an issue they could agree on. Flying the B-29 as they rolled off the Bell assembly line would be an uphill battle as it was. But it still irked her that he asked. "No, sir. I don't have a boyfriend."
His sigh of relief sent her temper over the top. "How about you? Got a girl waiting back home?"
The captain's eyes widened before darkening to a shade of midnight blue, as if he'd been caught in an ambush.
After several long seconds, he shook his head. "No attachments on this end."
"Good." Maggie slapped the wrench against the palm of her hand, the weight of the metal a comfort in her awkwardness. "We wouldn't want you moping over some Dear John letter."
The air rumbled with his laughter, surprising Maggie with its warmth. "You know, Director Cochran only picks the best and the brightest gals for her program."
A compliment? Maggie swallowed past the lump of disbelief lodged in her throat. "Thank you."
"You're welcome, even though you might change your mind come Monday morning."
The captain walked the length of the hangar, his boots squeaking softly against the packed red clay. "You've got a lot to prove."
She'd lived with that fact her entire life. Grabbing a nearby towel, Maggie rubbed at the grease that had pooled at the tips of her short fingernails. "How so?"
"The Air Transport Command squadron isn't too keen about having a hen in their hangar."
"Is that all? Then I guess they'll just have to get used to it."
"Ms. Daniels, please try to understand."
"Why?" she asked.
"These men are fighting for a position, an opportunity to fly the first B-29 out of the plant. They're not used to going up against a woman." His mouth narrowed into a fine line. "For most of these guys, it's the only way they're going to be able to serve in the war effort."
She threw the dirty towel on the nearby worktable. "And I suppose I should just go down to the Red Cross
and volunteer to roll bandages rather than use my abilities in the cockpit."
"These are men, Ms. Daniels."
"And we're in a war, Captain Hicks." She shrugged. "Why are they afraid of one woman? It's not like this kind of thing isn't going on everywhere. Women have been working in factories all over this country for the past two years."
"Maybe so, but that doesn't mean the guys left behind are taking it too well." The captain hesitated before continuing. "There have been reports of abuse."
Maggie glared up at him. "Captain Hicks, are you trying to scare me out of doing my duty?"
"No." He shook his head. "But if you're bound and determined to do this, I have a few suggestions."
His ominous tone didn't bode well, but Maggie was positive that once she showed the captain and his men what she was capable of doing in the air, their opinion would change. "I'm all ears."
"Both Major Evans and I feel that it would be in the best interest of everyone involved if we eased you into the squadron's routine. At first, you'll be inspecting repairs and going through some additional training. That way, you won't be crossing paths with the guys too much."
"We'll see how things go. But for now, stay close and follow my lead."
Maggie bit the inside of her lip. Last time she'd blindly followed a male into the unknown, Jackson and her cousins had shaved her hair within an inch of her scalp. She wouldn't be making that mistake again, not without some answers. "How much do you know about planes, Captain?"
"You want a resume?"
"Maybe." She smiled at his quick comeback. "If you're going to lead me in this situation, I need to know I can trust your abilities."
"Fair enough." His chest expanded against the confines of his service-regulation shirt as he drew in a deep breath. "I majored in aeronautical engineering at Georgia Tech, with an emphasis on aeronautic design. I was in the middle of an internship when the blitz started over in England so I joined the Royal Air Force."
That piece of information threw Maggie for a second. "You were in the dogfights over London?"
His eyes hooded, the man gave her a sharp nod.
"How did you end up at the plant?"
"I interned at Bell before I left for England." He gave his wristwatch a quick glance. "Look, I hate to cut this interview short, but I have to catch my bus back to the plant. Could you be in my office at 0700 hours Monday?"
Maggie studied him for a moment. In his guarded expression, she found bits and pieces of memories better left untouched. He's running from something. But what? She gave herself a mental shake. Didn't she have enough problems of her own? Why should she borrow more from this man?
Maggie nodded. "I'll be there."
Wesley pulled a small notepad from his jacket pocket. "The plant bus stops in downtown Hiram at five-thirty."
"I won't be taking the bus."
He looked up. "I don't understand."
Maggie smiled, mildly satisfied she had gotten the best of the captain. "My Aunt Merrilee owns a boardinghouse about a mile down the road from the plant, and she's offered me a room."
Wesley's focused glare peered at her over his wire-rimmed frames. "Merrilee Davenport is your aunt?"
"You know her?" Not that that fact surprised Maggie. Her aunt thrived on taking care of others, whether treating neighborhood kids to the occasional sweet or workers at the bomber plant.
No, it was the way the captain had said her aunt's name, as if he found the very thought of Maggie living in the house unacceptable. But there was no reason for him to feel that way, not unless .
The very idea made her midsection tumble in a nervous dive. Sure, housing near the bomber plant was at a shortage, but Aunt Merrilee wouldn't rent a room to the man who wasn't keen on having a woman in his training class. There had to be places in town, a room available where Captain Hicks could live until his mission was completed.
But any reprieves Maggie might have hoped for died when she stared at him. Storm clouds had gathered in his eyes, and she swore she heard thunder rumble when he finally spoke.
"Well, Ace," the captain said, annoyance in his voice. "Looks like we're going to share a landlady."
The antebellum plantation house stood in its regal splendor in front of Wesley, the screen door unable to contain the mouth-watering aromas of fresh green beans and seasoned pork that drifted on the breeze. He glanced down at his wristwatch. Ms. Merrilee must be setting the table about now, giving them a chance to talk before the rest of her boarders gathered. Taking the stairs two at a time, he rushed through the front door.
"Is that you, Wes dear?"
Wesley couldn't contain the smile he felt curving his lips as he walked down the paneled foyer toward the dining area. Nobody but his mother had ever called him Wes until his landlady. Mom. Just the thought of her kind eyes, her strong yet feminine hands grasped in prayer, caused a lump to form in his throat. If only he could talk to her, take her for a stroll down to Henderson's Drugs and have an ice-cream soda. A familiar heaviness pushed against his chest as it always did whenever he thought of the mother he had lost his first year at Tech. His grandfather was the only family he had left now, and Wesley couldn't face him, not after breaking his promise.
A failure that had cost Beth her life.
Pushing the memory aside, he stood at the entrance of the dining hall, his mouth watering at the tantalizing aromas coming from the room. He leaned against the door frame, considering the woman scattering crocheted potholders across the oblong hardwood table. He should have seen the similarities between Maggie and her aunt the same high cheekbones and creamy complexion, the same shade of pale green eyes. The two could have passed for sisters. "Something sure smells good."