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The propane burner flared, torching the quiet dawn in the empty field.
Nikki Alexander never grew tired of the familiar sound she'd heard since childhood. After the fan blew enough cold morning air inside the rainbow-colored envelope to give it shape, she aimed the flames inside the balloon, which still rested on its side. Once the air began to heat, it would become lighter than the surrounding cooler air.
After a few minutes of hot-air bursts, the envelope lifted upright. "Lenny, stay with the basket and hold it down with me," she said.
The new kid on the crew, a local high-school student, worked in exchange for learning everything he could about balloons so he could eventually pilot his own. "Okay, boss!"
Nikki smiled and nodded at the freckle-faced kid. She figured anyone willing to get up before dawn to crew a balloon ride deserved the chance. Balloons were typically launched during the early-morning hours or late evening because the winds were lighter, making for easier takeoffs and landings, and she could avoid thermalswhen the ground heated up and caused vertical air currents.
She'd already experienced difficulty in controlling her balloon on such an occasion, an experience she didn't want to repeat. Nor would her passengers appreciate a downdraft that could force the balloon into a hard landingthat and power lines were a balloon's greatest dangers. That was why even though some people requested more convenient ride hours, Nikki had to turn them down.
She glanced at the scene around her, making sure the rest of the three-man crewDavid and Richardwere in position to keep the envelope from rising too soon. The field she typically used for launch was situated next to Sky High Rides, perfect for the winds from the west, which would urge the balloon slowly toward the east and several wide-open fields, where Nikki had arrangements with the landowners.
Her soon-to-be passengersa man, his wife and their two childrenstood back, all eyes wide with amazement, except for the teenage daughter, who focused on an electronic device, probably texting her boyfriend because she wasn't happy about having to get up before sunrise. Or she was angry because she'd had to leave him behind. The younger of the siblings, the boy, looked about seven or eight, which was her nephew Michael's age. Already, Nikki could see the light in his eyes and knew he'd never forget this experience. Often one ride was enough to turn someone into a lifelong enthusiast.
Nikki had grown up in the balloon-ride business. Her father, the founder of Sky High, had created a successful business before he died eight years ago. She'd begun her career on the balloon crew and eventually she'd learned to fly and gotten her balloon pilot's license. At twenty-eight, she had thousands of flight hours to her credit.
The balloon finally ready, she turned to the family and beckoned them forward. She'd already debriefed them on safety. Now they could climb into the basket.
Except that she spotted two familiar figures standing next to a white town car. Her mother stood behind Michael, gripping his shoulders as if holding him back.
"Richard, would you and Lenny mind assisting the family into the basket and wait for me." Nikki trotted over to the car, tension building at the base of her head.
"Mom, what are you doing here?" She crouched to eye level with Michael and hugged him.
"As soon as you left this morning, he started at me again, begging to go with you." Her silver-haired mother hadn't bothered to paint on her usual makeup this early in the morning and looked at least ten years older than usual. "Nikki, you've got enough room in the basket."
The Sky High baskets were commercial size. This particular basket could carry up to fifteen people, but Nikki shook her head anyway. "We've talked about this, Mom."
"Can I ride in the chase car?" Michael looked so much like Nikki's brother with his blue-gray eyes. He stared at her now, pleading just the way she'd seen Jordan do so many times growing up.
Her heart kinked at the reminder. None of them had recovered from losing Jordan in a balloon accident three years before, least of all Michael, who'd lost his father that day.
Although what happened to her brother was an unusual accident, flying still presented dangers, especially if the pilot was a risk-taker. Nikki would do everything in her power to send Michael on another path. She wouldn't stand by to watch him follow in his father's daredevil footsteps.
But right now, she could hardly fight the pleading she saw in her nephew's gaze, especially if her mother wasn't strong enough to keep from making the drive over.
She stood up. She'd have another talk with her mother about this later. "Michael can ride with David in the chase car this time."
"Yippee!" Michael threw his arms up and jumped in victory. He took off running, but Nikki snatched him back.
"Hold on there. I'll walk you over." Nikki spotted the family already waiting in the basket, and her crew at the ropes, keeping the balloon earthbound. Of course she'd need to heat the air inside even more to send it floating skyward.
Nikki buckled Michael into the van pulling the equipment trailer. David would drive the van and meet her at the agreed-upon location unless her landing coordinates changed. From there, they would load the equipment on the trailer and bring the family back to their vehicle.
Once she was inside the basket and her passengers prepared, she ignited the flame in the burner, heating the air. Her crew let go of the tether lines.
Slowly, the basket drifted upward.
Nikki looked down and waved at Michael, who watched her from the van. David, Richard and Lenny loaded the rest of the equipment on the trailer and prepared for the chase. She would soon become a tour guide, telling the family about the various sights they would encounter along the ride.
But for the moment, the group was held captive by the fact they were floating in the air, far above the earth.
"It feels like we're dangling here, not moving." Finally, the teenager's attention was stolen from her focus on texting.
Nikki smiled. "That's because we're drifting with the current. You won't sense movement or even that we're very high, but of course, you can see that we are."
When the father took it upon himself to explain balloon flight to his children, Nikki allowed him the task. She held back when he got a few things wrong. By the smile on his face, he enjoyed impressing his kids, and she wouldn't ruin that for him. She allowed her thoughts to drift with the balloon, back to the girl's words.
It feels like we 're dangling here, not moving.
Unfortunately, that was exactly how Nikki felt about her life these days. After her brother's tragic death while participating in the world's oldest balloon race, Nikki wanted to sell the family business, to move her little family, which consisted of Michael and her mother, far from the memories. And far from the reminders of the man she once loved.
But there always seemed to be something or someone standing in her way.