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MICK CALLEN MOVED a step higher on the twelve-foot ladder that was propped against the battered Huey. It was the only helicopter in a fleet of three aircraft belonging to Cloud Chasers, Mick's company, which delivered freight throughout remote northwest Montana.
He stretched to dab lubricant on the far side of the rotor pitch. The pain in his hip at the movement was a sharp reminder that he'd reached too far for the titanium socket a surgeon had installed a year ago. He adjusted his weight and breathed more easily. Damn, how long would it be before he'd remember he didn't have the same range of motion anymore? But setting limits wasn't easy for a man who, at thirty-five, ought to be in the prime of his life.
Frustrated, he raised a greasy hand to swipe a stubborn lock of hair out of his eyes, then caught himself and first rubbed the grease down his coveralls so he wouldn't have a black streak through his blond hair. Mick shifted again and rested the can on the top rung. From this vantage point he could see a row of white-capped peaks in the distance.A slice of the Rocky Mountains.
Intent on servicing the Huey, Mick hadn't noticed the added nip in the morning air until this minute. The sky was a deep, cloudless blue. Pappy Jack would've said it was a perfect day for cloud chasing. Hence the name of their company.
A pang seared Mick's chest. This pain wasn't related to the injuries he'd sustained in the military when he'd been shot down during his last mission in Afghanistan. Nor was it the result of the many subsequent surgeries. Mick recognized this ache. He'd diagnosed it weeks ago as he tinkered with his plane engines. This pain struck each time he left the house to work solo.
Since mid-May he'd shopped solo, cooked solo, ate solo, flew solo and walked Wingman, his mutt, solo.
Here it was, already late October. It had been six damned months and he still expected to see his grandfather moving around the property. Pappy Jack Callen, Mick's mentor and grandfather, had always been the real heart and soul of Cloud Chasers.
At Jack's funeral late last spring, scores of residents from the nearby community of Whitepine had come to pay their respects. More than a few of Pappy's old friends had claimed Mick and Jack were lucky that Pappy had said good-night as usual one night and then simply didn't wake up the next morning. They said that when they died, they hoped it happened that way.
Except they weren't the ones who'd found Pappy lifeless in his bed. Mick had. And not a day passed that he didn't think of a hundred things he should've said the night before to the man who'd long been the rock for Mick and his twin sister, Marlee. Pappy had been everything to them after they'd lost their parents in a senseless car accident some twenty years ago.
Marlee assured Mick over and over in the days following the funeral that Pappy knew they loved him. But his sister, newly married and pregnant, didn't have endless empty hours to fill with nothing but rambling thoughts. Should'ves, could'ves, would'ves. These seemed to define Mick's existence lately. Not the touchy-feely type, he'd never been a big one for vocalizing how he felt. A fault he'd have to live with, or change. Damn, but change didn't come easy, either.
At eighty-six, their grandfather had lived a full life. Jack Callen proudly boasted a distinguished military career. He'd married the love of his life. Had built his home and business from the ground up. He'd raised a son and shepherded twin grandkids toward becoming fine navy flyers and otherwise all-around productive citizens.
By comparison, Mick felt his own life was going nowhere fast. His new brother-in-law, Glacier Park forest ranger Wylie Ames, said what Mick needed was to find a good woman. His sister took every opportunity to nag him to phone Tammy Skidmore, a nurse in Kalispell who'd shown enough interest to hand him her phone number the day he'd checked out of the hospital.
He scowled as he slopped grease on the underside of the rotor. Huh, maybe he should pick up the phone and call Tammy. But something held him back. Mick jokingly told Marlee it'd be hard to date a woman who had jammed needle after needle into his bare butt. Although that didn't ring true. Mick had lost all modesty after his accident. With Tammy, at least, if they ever reached the point of doing the deed, he wouldn't have to explain the ugly puckered skin that ran from hip to ankle where he'd been riddled by shrapnel. Mick probably didn't have a single physical asset Tammy Skidmore hadn't clinically observed, so that was pretty much a nonissue.
And if he crossed Tammy off his list of available females he was left with slim pickin's. Available, suitable women didn't grow on trees and there was little more than trees in this backcountry. Though a couple of old schoolmates in White-pine had let him know at Pappy's funeral that they were back in circulation. One was too straitlaced to suit Mick. The other lacked any scruples.
A little voice in the back of his mind niggled. What about Hana Egan?
What about her? Last fall, Pappy had told his twin sister that Mick was "sweet" on the smoke jumper. Mick had tripped over his teeth to deny it.
"Mick!" Hearing his name drifting up from the foot of his ladder jerked Mick out of his daydream. He hastily jammed a lid on the grease bucket and began to make his way down the rickety ladder.
Stella Gibson was waiting for him at the bottom. Judging by her worried expression, she'd anxiously followed his slow progress. The matronly widow, who lived in a cabin down the hill, had helped Mick in a variety of capacities since his medical discharge from the navy. She'd cleaned the house and left enough meals in the refrigerator to keep him and Pappy from starving.
Those months when Mick had been laid up, when Marlee moved home and flew his route, Stella took care of Mick, Pappy and sometimes Marlee's daughter, Jo Beth. But she had never made a secret of the fact that she was looking for a permanent job. It was only after Marlee married Wylie, and Pappy passed away, that Mick got smart and hired Stella to work half-time cleaning house, and the other half keeping order in Cloud Chasers'office. That was a task his sister repeatedly said he was bad at.
Hands on hips, Stella was obviously ready to give him a motherly lecture. "When I left yesterday, Mick Callen, you told me Josh Manley would be in today to service the helicopter. Why are you up on that ladder?"
Mick set down the bucket, pulled a rag out of his back pocket and wiped the excess goop off his fingers. "Yeah, well, Josh's mom phoned. His girlfriend conned Josh into driving her and a coworker into Kalispell today. Apparently they're all invited to an early Halloween party at the home of his girl-friend's boss, who happens to have an opening for a corporate pilot. I know Josh really wants that job. He's a good pilot, and I can't use him full-time."
"If he gets the job, who'll help you, Mick? Between the upswing in freight orders and the mercy missions with Angel Fleet, it seems to me you need a full-time flying partner."
"With winter coming on, it's a matter of weeks before I'd have to cut Josh's hours. That's the nature of the freight business in upper Montana."
"Running in high gear these last six or seven months, I never thought to ask. Will my hours be cut over the winter?"
Wingman bounded up, his tongue hanging out. The part Lab, part shepherd, part some unknown breed, nosed Mick's leg until he crouched to rub the dog's furry head. "Actually, Stella, I've been juggling my finances, hoping I can afford to spend the winter bumming around some island with white sandy beaches, ice-cold margaritas and bikini-clad babes. I'd like you to look after the place. You know, see the pipes don't break and my planes don't blow away. Up to now, no one's had time to scan in all the old accounts or shred the mountains of paperwork Pappy stored in those damned cardboard boxes, either. I'll pay you to handle everything."
"I can do that. Are you planning to take the dog?"
Mick let the animal lick his chin. "I wish. But this guy's a cold-weather mutt. I intend to corner Marlee and Wylie and ask them if I can pay his son to take care of Wingman until I get back in the spring. Last time I visited them for a weekend, I let Dean take care of my dog. Since Jo Beth has Piston, it evened the odds in their 'yours, mine and ours household."
Stella's dark brown eyes sparkled when she laughed. "You'd do that to your poor sister? Add another creature when she's dealing with Thanksgiving, Christmas and having a baby? Last time we talked, she said Dean had rescued a half-grown grizzly who'd been shot by a neighboring rancher. That boy already has twin wolf cubs and numerous small animals in various stages of healing."
"Was Marlee complaining?"
"No. She sounded happy, in fact."
"Yeah, she does." Mick straightened and patted the dog. He gazed blankly at the horizon. "I was just thinking, Stella, it's perfect flying weather. I should shake out the chopper and see if the maintenance I did takes care of the rotor wobble Josh was complaining about. Last week when I flew to Missoula for my last visit with the physical therapist, I picked up some things for the baby. I also bought a few Halloween goodies for Dean and Jo Beth. Maybe I'll take myself up to the ranger station. See if Wylie can use an extra hand with the addition he's madly building on their house."
Stella snapped her fingers. "That's why I came to find you, Mick. I took a phone order from Trudy Morgenthal at the rangers' base camp, and the smoke jumpers would also like some supplies delivered no later than tomorrow afternoon."
Mick's grease-stained fingers fondled the dog's silky ear. "I delivered Captain Martin's winter supplies weeks ago. He said he wouldn't need anything until spring."
"I gather this is private supplies for the smoke jumpers. None of them are in your billing system, which brings up the next question. Will you fly out such a small order for cash? Jess Hargitay promised to pay on delivery."
"I guess. Jess has been with Martin for a few years. Not all the jumpers return each season." He frowned. "I've never known any of them to request private supplies. In fact, I understood they were all leaving next week, except Captain Martin and his assistant."
"Mr. Hargitay mentioned that a group is planning a farewell climb in Glacier Park. One of the taller peaks, but I don't recall which. They've ordered ready-to-eat meals, long johns and miscellaneous stuff."
"Huh. Long johns for sure. I see there's quite a bit of snow up along the ridge."
"If the report I heard this morning is correct, we're liable to lose this fine weather soon. They predict we'll see snow in the valley by early next week."
Mick laughed. "Stella, you can't trust the news channel weather staff to get it right. If you want the skinny on the weather, you need to phone the service pilots use."
She tipped back her head and scanned the sky that was visible through a row of majestic pine trees that blocked north winds from battering the house. "You're right." She looked at him again. "So, then, you want me to phone Trudy and this Jess guy and say you'll take both jobs?"
"Sure. Sounds good. I never turn down an opportunity to earn money. What's today? Thursday? Ask Trudy if tomorrow's soon enough to deliver her order. I'll fly to Kalispell this afternoon and fetch the supplies in the Arrow. At first light tomorrow, I'll transfer the load to the Huey. That'll allow me time to phone Wylie and Marlee, and arrange to spend a couple of nights with them."
"I'll confirm the times with Trudy ASAP. Unless you want my help in carting that big old ladder back to the work shed."
"Thanks for the offer, Stella, but my PT said I'm good as new. Maybe better than, what with all the hardware installed in my hip," Mick said with a wink. He forgot the condition of his hand and raked still-greasy fingers through hair that needed more than a trim, as curls fell over his eyes and skimmed the lower edge of his collar.
"You look kind of shaggy. But unless there's someone out in the great beyond you want to impress, I'd say you can get by for another week without a barber."
Again, a clear vision of perky Hana Egan popped into Mick's mind. Probably because Stella had mentioned Jess Hargitay. Jess gave the impression that he was hot stuff in the eyes of female smoke jumpers. Mick had seen Jess act possessive of several women who'd rotated in and out of the camp. A few years ago he'd heard there were allegations of Jess inappropriately harassing a partner, a female. She quit forestry and Mick heard she'd dropped charges rather than fight a losing battle in court. Mick had seen Jess move on Hana. But maybe she returned his interest. Probably did. Mick's trips to the camp were sporadic, so it wasn't as if he knew anything for sure.
"Stella, if Trudy needs her order today, buzz me on the house intercom. I'm going to store the ladder and grease, then go clean up."
They parted, and Mick returned the ladder to the shed. On his trip to the house, he took out his cell phone and punched in his sister's number. Her phone rang three times before she answered, and then she sounded out of breath.
"Hey, sis, did I catch you on the run?"
"Mick?" His twin's voice reflected both surprise and delight. "I had my head in the oven when the phone rang. I stopped to take out two pies before I picked up."
"You're baking pies? What's the occasion?"
"I'll have you know I cook a lot more since I acquired a family of two hungry males. Thankfully, Rose sent me her favorite recipes," Marlee said, referring to her former mother-in-law, Rose Stein. Marlee's marriage to Wylie Ames was his twin's second marriage. Her first husband had died after a prolonged bout with cancer. She'd had some problems with her ex-mom-in-law. But Marlee had met and overcome all challenges like a champ.