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Times like this, Mae Lund thought she might actually hate Chet Stryker.
Mae stared at herself in the dingy mirror of the one-stall hangar bathroom, grimacing at the splotch of vomit-scented wetness that stained her jumpsuit. How she loved it when her scenic air tour passengers didn't follow instructions.
She should be flying C-130s for Chet Stryker's international security team. His voice still rang in her head. I just don't want you to get hurt Mae
A pounding at the bathroom door made her jump. "Mae?" It was Darrin, her new, grumpy boss, annoyance in his tone that she'd stalked away from her nauseous tourists.
"Just a second!" She chucked another handful of paper towels into the trash and stripped off the jumpsuit. Still, her skin reeked of sickly-sweet, soap-imbued vomit. If her boss wanted her to go up again
"Mae, get out here!"
"Hold your horses, I'll be right there!" She tugged on a pair of clean overalls over her tank top and pulled them up over her shoulders, then slipped on flip-flops. Scraping the edge off her voice, she reached for the door.
"I just had to change. I can't believe that kid urped all over me. Can't his mother read the direc" Uh-oh.
Darrin stood before her, flanked by the dangerous urper and his mother. She gripped the kid around the waist as he sagged against her.
"They need to use the bathroom," Darrin said tightly.
They moved past her, the mother uttering a word that Mae would have edited for the kid's sake. The door clicked shut behind them, and Mae winced as she heard the splatter of another round of lunch.
"I'm not cleaning that up." Mae stared at Darrinor, rather, stared down at Darrin and his bald spot. His furious little beady eyes made him appear more angry mole than former bush pilot.
"Rough ride?" Darrin took her by the elbow, pulling her away from the door. Mae glanced down at his hand and shot him a dark look.
"She said that he wouldn't have gotten sick if you hadn't descended so quickly. And apparently there was also a steep climb"
"Are you serious? It's a small plane, Darrin, not a jumbo jet. Airsickness is a probability, not just a remote possibility. You can't climbor descend, for that matterwithout feeling a little queasy. Why not ask them about the stop-off at McDonald's on the way to the airstrip? And, by the way, I didn't hear any complaints when I was buzzing them around the south crater."
So maybe well, okay, she had been a little quick on the stick as they'd slid in and out of Olympic National Park, a favorite on the Seattle Air Scenic Tours schedule. But she'd wanted to give them a great view of the Carbon Glacier. Some people paid extra for that kind of flying.
Some people considered that kind of flying a talent. A work of art.
"This is the third complaint this month, Mae." Darrin pulled out a well-worn gimme cap from his back pocket and shoved it over his bald spot. He looked up at her and pursed his lips. "You're a good pilot, but you take too many risks"
"What?" Risks? A risk was liberating a learjet from a serial killer and abandoning ship a second before it turned into fire and ash. Or hijacking a clunker chopper and flying under the radar into the icy winds of Siberia to save a buddy from execution. Okay, that one had cost her a thriving career with the military. "But really, I didn't risk anything"
"You're risking my business. My livelihood." Darrin nodded to the mechanic wheeling the mop bucket out to the plane. "And I'm not the only one. Shall we count how many companies you've flown for in the past couple years?"
She looked over his head, through the hangar, out to where the sky was just purpling with the end of the day. She refused to wince as he listed them, one after another, in the nastiest tone he could muster. "You're out of options, lady. You either start flying smart, or you stop flying."
Stop flying. That was what it had come down to, hadn't it? Get a job serving coffee, or perhaps teachingalthough she doubted any flight school would take her on, thanks to the closed ranks of the air charter services in Seattle.
She swallowed past the dread in her throat. "Sorry, Darrin."
"Now I gotta write up a refund. Go help clean up the plane." He turned and stalked back to his office.
Perfect. She'd gone from decorated rescue pilot to cleaning crew.
That was what she got for putting her dreams into the hands of Chet Stryker.
She met the mechanic rolling his mop bucket back inside. "All cleaned, Mae."
"Thanks." Time for a quick escape. She jogged out to her ten-year-old Montero, which felt like a sauna after sitting in the summer sun all day, and rolled down the windows. The stereo came on full blast, and she twisted the knob to Off before Darrin could hear her fleeing.
Pulling out, she spotted him emerging from the hangar and ignored his frantic waving. She angled her elbow out the window as she exited the airfield, noticing a beautiful Piper Cub from the local aviation school touching down. And beyond that a gleaming helicopter sat on the pad. Most pilots weren't rated on both aircraft and helicopters, but she'd taken her chopper exam for her stint in ocean rescue.
Frankly, she didn't care what she flew. Just as long as she could escape into the heavens. She slammed her hand on the steering wheel, then turned on the radio. Screamer music. Loud. Pulsing. Perfectly impossible to think at this decibel.
Nearly impossible, also, to hear her cell phone nestled in the cup holder between her seats. Had she not glanced down at the stoplight and seen it vibrating inside its silver skin, she would have missed the call altogether.
She turned the radio down and grabbed the cell, flipping it open. "Mae here."
Oh, why hadn't she checked the display? "Mae Lund, you turn your car around this second or don't bother showing up here again." Mae shut her phone. Nope, no job tomorrow.
The phone vibrated again in her grip, and this time she checked the display.
What now? She flipped the phone open and didn't bother to check her tone. "What, Lissa?"
"Mae?" The voice on the other end wobbled.
Mae bit back a "Whose phone do you think you're calling? " and opted for something softer. After all, her kid half-sister didn't mean to be Mae's polar oppositetimid, pliable, fragile. That blame Mae reserved for their mother.
"It's me, Lis."
Mae heard silence, or perhaps a gasp of breathstill, the hiccupping sound was enough for Mae to pull over. She turned into a Dunkin' Donuts and switched ears. "What's up, honey?"
Sometimeswell, most of the timeit was hard to believe that Lissa, only two years younger than Mae, had a college-age son, given the way Lissa so often resembled a thirteen-year-old in the throes of a temper tantrum. Then again, she'd been just a little more than thirteen when she had little Joshy.
Little Joshy. Perhaps Mae should stop thinking of the nineteen-year-old by the nickname she'd given him when he'd run through their trailer in a saggy, wet diaper.
"What is it, Lis?" Mae pulled the ponytail holder out of her hair and wrapped it around her wrist, running her fingers through her sweaty mane.
"It's it's Josh."
Mae switched ears again with the phone, rolling up the window to cut out street noise. "What's wrong with Josh?"
"He's missing, Mae."
Huh? "Wasn't he going camping or something?" Josh had called earlier in the summer, right after his freshman year at Arizona State, excited because he'd hooked up a summer internship with some medical group. "No, he was going to work for Ambassadors of Health, right?"
"Yeah, and they sent him to Georgia."
Mae had been to Georgia few times. "Maybe he and few friends just took off, went camping somewhere along the Appalachian Trail. He said he was bringing that backpack I got him for graduation"
"No! No, Mae, listen. Not Georgia. Georgia. The country"
Mae's gaze focused on a woman and a young boy emerging from the doughnut shop as she tried to process Lissa's words in her head. In the heat of the closed car, her own odor watered her eyes. "Georgia, as in former-satellite-of-the-Soviet-Union Georgia?"
"Yes." Her word caught on a sob.
"Georgia? North of Iraq, next to Pakistan, Georgia? The one that recently got invaded by Russia?" Mae opened the door and got out, gulping in fresh air. "Why is he in Georgia?"
"That's where the aid group sent him. They went over to work in a clinic. Give vaccinations and checkups or something. He was supposed to be there for a monththe rest of his team came home last weekbut he wanted to stay. I thought it would be okay, but I just got a call from his leaders, and yesterday he vanished. Maybe he ran off, or maybe maybe."
"Kidnapped." Mae pushed her sweaty hair away from her face as she turned toward the road. Cars clogged at the stoplight, the rhythmic beat of a radio spilling into the chaos. Pedestrians hurried across the crosswalk, most with cell phones pressed to their ears. A dog barked at her from the cracked window of a banged-up caravan.
But for Mae, everything had gone still. "Kidnapped," she whispered again.
Lissa's communication had been reduced to muffled crying.
Mae knew the price of an American teenager in a foreign landfor any American, really, but a kid, now that amounted to a jackpot for any terrorist group looking to cash in. Only this time, they'd picked the wrong kid. A poor kid. A kid without rich parents.
"Find him, Mae. I know you you have friends in the militarywhat about those friends from Russia? Or your old roommate? Didn't she marry someone from Russia? Or maybe that American soldierwhat was his name?"
"Yeah, him." Hope quickened Lissa's voice. "He might know something. Or maybe you could ask that boyfriend in Europe?"
"Chet." Mae's throat burned even as she dredged out his name. "Chet runs an international security company."
"Yes, Chet! Aren't you two dating?"
"We were dating, a long time ago, Lis. Good grief, don't you listen to anything I say?"
Silence on the other end, followed by an indrawn, even shaky breath, made Mae cringe. "We broke up a year ago but that doesn't matter." She opened her car door and slid back in. "I'll find him, Lis. I'll find Joshy."
When Lissa spoke again, Mae heard the confidence, the trust that she'd always found so painfully suffocat-ingand today, terrifying. "I know you will, Mae."
Mae hung up. Stared at the phone. Shoot. She hated this part.
I love you, Mae. But I don't want you to work for me.
You mean you don't want me in your life, she'd said.
She would never forget his steady, dark-eyed stare, or the rawness in his expression.
Nor the hurt on his face when she'd dumped her drink over his head and walked away.
She only gave herself another moment's debate before breaking all her promises to herself and dialing the man who'd nose-dived her life.
As with every mission Chet Stryker had ever accepted, he did his homework, armed himself with the latest technology, contemplated every strategy and embraced whatever character his assignment demanded.
"I really hate tulle," he said, as he exited through the security gates of Hans Brumegaarden's expansive estate in his Snow White costume. The sun had long ago abandoned the day, and a sprinkling of stars barely outshone the lights of Berlin.
"It does tend to snag on your ankle holster," Brody "Wick" Wickham said, hoisting his overnight bag of suppliesammunition, a Heckler and Koch submachine gun, a couple of Glocks and various high-tech surveillance equipmentover his shoulder, his bad mood etched on his craggy face. "I could use a night at the Hyatt."
Chet didn't blame him. His elite security team had spent five hours in the late summer sun dressed as Grumpy, Sleepy and Sneezy. Lucky him, as the team leader, Chet had landed the role of Snow White.
He had to be the laughingstock of the international-security community. Apparently, if anyone needed a decorated, former Delta Force operative with ten years of undercover experience and his team of highly trained specialists to impersonate fairy-tale characters, Chet Stryker was their man.
He'd wanted to run Stryker International on his terms. With his choice of assignments.
But clearly pride wouldn't pay the bills. And they had accomplished their missionto protect six-year-old Gretchen Brumegaarden and one hundred of her closest friends and family members from a terrorist threat. Still, it felt like a compromise. He needed to do everything he could to make his little company a success, hoping to convince himself that he hadn't blown everything when he'd retired early from the military.
Since the day he'd kicked Mae out of his life, it seemed he'd made one glaring mistake after another.
"We're taking the midnight train back to Prague," Chet said, pressing the automatic unlock on their economy rental car.
"No airplane?" Artyom, his computer techie from Russia, ran to catch up, toting his own provisions, most of them contained in his laptop case. He'd been recruited by Wick, a former Green Beret whom Chet had enticed to leave special ops after a particularly brutal tour. Chet's business partner Vicktora former FSB agenthad closed the deal, talking Artyom into joining Stryker International. Luke Dekker, former Navy SEAL, acted as medic and team explosives expert. Now all Chet needed was a profiler, perhaps a negotiator, and, yes, a pilot.
He still hadn't found someone as skilled as Mae. Not even close. He'd been setting his sights lower and lower, until he was looking at recruits fresh out of a bush pilot school in Alaska. He needed Mae. But every time he opened his phone to call her, his chest would burn, old wounds stirring to life, and he'd shut his phone and the image of her from his mind.
He wouldn'tcouldn'tput someone he loved in the line of fire. Been there, done that.
Chet opened the trunk and threw in the gear. "No airplane. This check barely covers our expenses and salaries for the next month. An airplane means another dwarf suit in your near future."
Chet needed a break, something to put his business on the map. Something big, international and newsworthy.
Maybe even something to make him feel like a soldier, a patriot, again. Anything but a cartoon character playing a charade.
The wind blew against the ancient elm trees ringing the property, picking up his rather un-Snow-White scent. "Let's get out of here."
His cell phone vibrated as he opened the car door. Fishing it out of his pocket, he looked at the numberand stilled.
"You drive, Wick." Chet tossed him the keys, walked over to the passenger side and opened the phone. "Chet here."