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In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.
Ruth Fontaine dodged another puddle as she scurried toward the small group of people waiting to board the outgoing flight at the Scottsdale airport. Her gaze settled on the unfamiliar airplane parked on the tarmac. She skidded to a halt, dreading the impending flight more than usual. Getting acclimated to new pilots and planes was never easy for her. This plane had to be from the new charter airline contracted by AeroFlight, the company that supplied the Arizona Organ Donor Network with transportation to and from hospitals to retrieve organs.
"Everyone here?" Out of breath, Ruth surveyed her teammates. Besides herself, Dr. Cavanaugh, Nancy Tillman, the first assistant, and two med students were going on the fly out to retrieve the heart.
"Yes. We're it," the first assistant replied. Everyone else was oddly quiet.
In the background, Ruth heard the sound of raised voices coming from the interior of the plane. "Vultures. Every last one of them. I don't want them on my plane."
"Keep your voice down. The medical team should be here any minute." An equally angry voice retorted.
"Just once. No more. And this conversation is far from over."
"Okay then." Raising her eyebrows, Ruth twisted her lips and shrugged her shoulders and looked at the assembled group. "So what are we waiting for? I don't think we'll be getting the red-carpet treatment on this flight. I hope you don't mind."
She grabbed the railing and stomped her foot on the bottom step to signal their arrival. The sun disappeared behind a cloud, and Ruth shivered. Aside from the mid-afternoon monsoon, no more rain had been forecast for the day unless the storm came from inside the plane. Not good morale for the team, but none of them seemed to be bothered with what had just transpired.
As she climbed the stairs, Ruth eyed the two men now standing by the entrance. Both wore matching dark blue polo shirts with their company logo embroidered on the pocket and khaki pants instead of the traditional pilot attire, but even without benefit of overhearing part of their conversation, there was no mistaking the tension between the pilots. She could cut it with one of Dr. Cavanaugh's scalpels.
What the pilots chose to wear or their argument was not her problem as long as they got them to and from their destination safer than she'd managed to get her newly smudged bright red manicured toenails to the airport. At the top of the steps, she smiled and held out her hand to the more welcoming man on the right.
"Hi, I'm the donation coordinator, Ruth Fontaine."
"Hi, Ruth. I'm your copilot, Bradford Westberry. Please call me Brad."
"Pleased to meet you, Brad."
"Likewise, Ruth." The tall, stocky, blond man grinned at her, turning on the charm that would make some women swoon.
Ruth preferred the dark, brooding Heathcliff type, like the dark-haired man to her left who commanded her attention. Her gaze transferred to the other pilot, and her stomach turned over as if it hit some heavy turbulence.
His skin was lightly tanned and his face strong and angular. A five o'clock shadow defined his jawline, while a hint of silver touched the dark hair at his temples. Only a crooked nose and a small scar by his left ear marred what she would consider the perfect face.
"Noah Barton. Your pilot." The man's voice held a trace of disapproval as he tried to tilt the corners of his mouth up into a half smile.
Ruth shook his hand and noticed he didn't extend the invitation to use his first name. She felt a slight tremor all the way to the bottom of her feet despite her sleep-deprived stupor from being up most of the last twenty-four hours. She noticed the pilot's jaw slacken as he pulled the black Foster Grant sunglasses from his face. The sadness she'd heard in his tone also flared in his deep crystal-blue eyes as he stared down at her. Her heartbeat quickened, and some strange unidentified emotion passed between them. Ruth blinked. His bittersweet sorrow disappeared behind a wall of professional indifference.
Disappointment nipped at her nerves and startled her. Her reaction to his sudden lack of interest meant this tentative attraction affected her more than she cared to admit.
Not good when she had a job to do. She had no time to get involved with anyone.
Still, the need to chase away whatever troubled him settled in her heart. Ruth leaned toward him and placed her free hand on top of their clasped ones. The action felt right. As if she were meant to comfort him. "It's nice to meet you, too."
This strange meeting confirmed her growing suspicion that today was not going to be routine no matter what she did. Great. After Noah pulled his hand from hers, she slid the right one inside her lab coat pocket and squeezed the heart-shaped stress ball one of her coworkers had given her as a joke, which actually came in handy when she had to step on an airplane.
She couldn't hold the pilots responsible for her bad day that started with spilling coffee on her new white shirt at a breakfast meeting and getting called to the airport in the middle of her mid-afternoon nail appointment after working all night. No. That was just old Murphy rearing his ugly head again at the most inopportune times.
She stepped aside, allowing the rest of the team to squeeze by and enter the Citation.
"Expecting anyone else?" Noah asked.
"No. This is it. I doubt there'd be much room for more." She trailed her teammates. Ruth eyed the six-seat interior as she stepped inside. The plane was smaller than the one the other charter company flew, but the tan leather seats looked just as comfortable.
"Then I suggest you take a seat and fasten your seat belt if you want to get to San Diego by dinner." A no-nonsense sounding Noah followed behind her.
Surprised at his nearness, Ruth spun around. But as she gazed up at him, she couldn't help but think how different this pilot was from the other ones she'd used. None of them seemed to have any issues flying a medical team around. What was Noah's problem?
Again, not her concern right now. Getting the donor heart from San Diego back here to Arizona was. Doing God's will and saving as many lives as she could topped her list of things to accomplish today.
Noah placed his sunglasses back over his eyes as if blocking her from his view. Then he retrieved a headset and handed it to her. "Here. I'm sure you're familiar with these? This is how I prefer to communicate."
"Thank you. I am." Ruth matched his professionalism and placed the unit around her neck. On the newer planes, the interior noise level resembled that of an airliner, so the things weren't necessary like before, but since Noah would be wearing a headset of his own, this meant they could talk without her having to get up and tap him on the shoulder to get his attention.
While Brad secured the door, she eased her fatigued body into the padded seat across from the doctor so she could relay the information from San Diego Memorial. The seat felt as comfortable as it had looked. She sank into the softness. From this vantage point, though, she had a clear view of Noah's partial profile and the frown hugging his rugged lips as he said something to Brad.
The tension grew again between the two men before the other pilot sat down.
Within seconds, Noah folded himself into his own seat and put his headset on. Ruth still couldn't keep her gaze from him. His inexplicable sorrow called out to her on a gut level she didn't quite understand, and the nurturing person inside her responded to it.
She sighed and tossed her curly, blond hair behind her shoulders. Even though Noah had been cordial, his underlying attitude toward her and her team bothered her. People usually gravitated to her. They didn't treat her like she carried a deadly strain of the flu.
Did he really think she was a vulture? Why?
Instead of focusing on him, she turned her attention to the job she'd held for over two years. The job she loved because it brought life and hope to very sick people.
"Okay, team. I'll fill you in on the specifics when we're airborne." Ruth reached for one of the biohazard bags she'd packed and handed it back one row to Nancy. "Here. In case we hit some turbulence."
The pale-faced first assistant grabbed it and nodded.
Unfamiliar with the two med students, Ruth held up another bag. "Anyone else get airsick?"
"We're fine, Ms. Fontaine," one of them piped up.
After Ruth tucked the bag into the seat's pocket, she settled the headset over her ears. Her fingers played with the stress ball as she watched another commuter plane taxi by the window. She loved her job but hated the flying that came with it. Would there ever come a day when she wouldn't be afraid?
A cold, wet nose and a high-pitched bark jolted her from the scenery. A small white, tan and gray dog, a Yorkshire terrier from the looks of it, nudged his snout underneath her palm.
"Oh. Hello, buddy. Where'd you come from?" She smiled at the impish, almost intelligent-looking face.
"That's Houston. He's one of my copilots. He likes to hide until we're in the air. Houston come." Noah's voice resonated through the headset. He snapped his fingers.
The dog's tail thumped against the carpeted floor. His tongue lopped out on one side as he stared up at her with inquisitive eyes. He licked her hand and whined.
"Come here, boy." A growl accompanied the snapping fingers this time.
She noticed the dog listened probably as well as Noah did.
A giggle erupted from behind her tired lips, and she let her fingers trail through the dog's fur. "Houston, huh? I think you're kind of cute. A dog as a copilot. That's unique. Wanna have a seat?" She patted her lap. It only took a split second for the dog to decide her cushioning was probably more comfortable than the seating arrangements behind the pilot's seat.
Noah's last look before he turned around to face the front curled around her heart. Somehow she suspected Houston was more than just another copilot.
"Suit yourself, dog." With the precision of an accomplished pilot, Noah maneuvered them onto the runway.
Cradling her hands together, Ruth bowed her head, closed her eyes and prayed for the safety of everyone on the plane. Then she prayed for the family of the donor and the recipient, asking the Lord to heal all their hurts and wounds and wrap them in his infinite love. Noah, too.
Once finished, and without disturbing her new lap mate, Ruth reached into her coat pocket and grabbed a piece of gum to chew to relieve the pressure on her eardrums when they took off and ascended into the evening sky. The dog watched her every move and sniffed at her hand.
"Sorry, Houston. No gum for you."
The anticipated surge of adrenaline and fear when the plane rolled forward chased away her fatigue. Matching an organ to a recipient and saving a life always had that affect on her. Tomorrow she'd pay the price, but it was well worth the physical strain to bring hope to another family.
"Houston. Quit begging and come here."
The dog whined again and wedged his nose underneath her arm. His short muscular body wriggled into a more comfortable position.
Ruth laughed and placed the headset on. "For a dog that flies for a living, you certainly are a coward." Like me.
"He's got you fooled. He's a sucker for blondes." Noah's voice crackled in her ears.
So Houston likes blondes. What about you Noah? Somehow that last caramel-flavored coffee drink touched off her sarcastic side instead of giving her the much needed energy boost. Ruth tore her gaze from Noah's broad shoulders and looked out the window.
The dusty desert did little to contrast with the buildings in the distance. An occasional palm tree dotted her vision as the world blurred. The bumpy ride on the runway smoothed out like a clean piece of glass.
A haze painted the blue sky as the plane ascended into the thermals. Instinctively, she clasped the stress ball again. Even with all her flight hours, she still had an insane fear of flying. Today's flight was made worse without their usual pilots behind the controls. But Noah had to be as capable or AeroFlight wouldn't have contracted with his company. This was routine.
She ignored the chattering of the med students sitting behind her. Dr. Cavanaugh flipped through the latest medical journal while Nancy filed her nails. Ruth looked out the window again. Rush hour traffic snaked along the 101 heading east. Unless she had another call, she'd be back in the valley by nine and asleep by ten.
A yawn escaped. Her body fought the effects from last night's coordination along with a full day of meetings and appointments. Now wasn't the time to relax. She had calls to make, an itinerary to keep on top of and a staff to direct. She could chill out later.
"Okay, Houston. Time to work." Her fingers caressed the shaggy fur before she set the dog on the aircraft floor.
A sleep-deprived ache registered behind her right eye. Not even pressure from her thumb deadened the pain. Now that they were airborne and she couldn't cause any problems with communication between the pilot and the control center, Ruth placed the headset around her neck, grabbed the Flight Fone and then dialed the coordinator's number in San Diego.
Noah sank back against the pilot's seat as he leveled off to cruising altitude. His fingers strangled the yoke. He'd love to do the same to Brad's neck. He would deal with him later, out of earshot of his passengers. He wondered how much they'd overheard before they'd made their presence known.
Either way, his partner had no right to sign a contract without informing Noah of what would be required. Brad should have known better than to solicit a company like AeroFlight, whose sole mission was to provide medical transportation, including the retrieval of organs.
Human organs. From a donor. From another casualty of the medical profession. Bile rose in his throat. Maybe he should ask Ruth for one of those biohazard bags she was so fond of.
With the exception of his family and Brad, few in his current life knew of his past. But then again, Noah had come to terms with what happened. He'd moved forward with his life.
Or had he?
The moment he'd seen the curvy blonde gracing the stairs of his aircraft, his stomach took a nosedive and landed near the soles of his feet. He hadn't recovered yet.