Risk versus return. What can be lost versus what can be gained. The essence of every critical decision. Invest in those dependable Treasury bonds yielding a slim but certain return, or throw caution to the wind and snap up shares of the high-tech start-up that could become next week’s billion-dollar headline—or, just as easily, a bankrupt memory. Marry the safe, stable person your parents adore, or run away with the lover who ignites body and soul with a single glance—but lives only in the moment. Risk versus return. A simple concept that often imposes difficult choices. And, sometimes, terrible consequences.
Angela Day had chosen well in her business career. It was in her personal life where accepting the risks had proven catastrophic.
Until a few minutes ago the four-hour flight from Virginia had been silky smooth. Zero chop in the dark winter sky, which came as a relief because Angela hated to fly. So many times she’d heard the catchy stat about planes being safer than cars—usually from amused colleagues sitting beside her when she made the sign of the cross over her heart as the aircraft began to roll forward on takeoff. But as the Gulfstream V banked hard left on its final approach into Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and hurtled through a nasty air pocket, the statistical crutch disintegrated—just as it always did.
“Get this thing on the ground,” she whispered, her fingernails digging into the arms of the plush leather seat, her stomach starting to churn. “Now.”
On the way west a uniformed steward had attended to her every want, serving a delicious crab imperial dinner an hour into the flight and constantly topping off her crystal glass with a dry Chardonnay. She was accustomed to commercial aircraft and economy class, accustomed to flat Coke in plastic cups, stale pretzels, and uncomfortable seats beside infants who screamed at any change in air pressure. So, being the only passenger on a private jet as lavish as a five-star hotel suite was a welcome change, even if the luxury was a one-time-only offer made available for some as-yet-unexplained reason by a reclusive billionaire she’d only read about in the press.
But the pleasurable experience had been ruined somewhere over South Dakota, when one of the pilots had sauntered back to let her know in his gravelly, Chuck Yeager monotone that the landing might get a little dicey. A winter storm had blown in to northwest Wyoming a few hours ahead of schedule, and he wanted to make certain she was buckled in securely. He chuckled at her suggestion that he make a U-turn and beeline it back to the East Coast, then told her he’d see her on the ground. Hopefully in one piece, she thought. She tried to convince herself that “a little dicey” wasn’t pilot-speak for “imminent disaster.” Suddenly she missed economy class and its screaming infants. She glanced out the small window beside her into total darkness. Probably the side of some mountain we’re about to slam into, she figured grimly.
Then the plane’s two engines powered up, landing lights flashed on, and she was hurtling through a wall of white. “Oh, God,” she murmured, digging her fingernails even deeper into the leather. A moment later, eerie blue lights appeared through the thick clouds and a snow-covered runway rose up to meet the aircraft. A hard bounce, a softer one, a deafening roar and they were taxiing through a blizzard, apparently under control. She let out an audible sigh.
“Welcome to Wyoming, Ms. Day. I hope you enjoyed the flight.”
Angela looked up into the smiling face of the clean-cut attendant who had appeared from a door at the back of the cabin. “Thank you.” She thought about telling him the truth—how she wished Orville and Wilbur’s mother and father had never met. “Everything was fine.”
“Good. Well, it’s 11 p.m. here in Jackson Hole. We’ll be taxiing for a few minutes, and we’d like you to remain in your seat until the plane comes to a complete stop.”
“As opposed to a partial stop?” She grinned but he didn’t react. “You didn’t really have to say all that stuff about me remaining in my seat, did you? After all, I am the only passenger.”
“Regulations are regulations,” he answered firmly, handing her the small makeup kit she had stowed in an overhead compartment. “The rest of your luggage will be taken care of for you.”
“Have you ever met Jake Lawrence?” she asked before the young man moved off.
He hesitated. “I can’t say.”
She smiled at him. “Does that mean you don’t know if you’ve ever met him? That you don’t even know what Mr. Lawrence looks like? Or that you know what he looks like, but you aren’t allowed to talk about him?”
The young man smiled politely. “I can’t say. I hope you enjoy your time here in the Tetons.”
Then the young man disappeared through the doorway at the back of the cabin. Angela’s favorite meal was crab imperial, accompanied by dry Chardonnay. The movie on the way out—Erin Brockovich—was one of her favorites. The books and magazines on board were her favorites, as well. It was all too neatly packaged to be coincidence.
“Sorry about the bumps on the way down, Ms. Day.” The pi- lot helped her slip into her long winter coat as she stood by the cock- pit door.
“I’m just glad we’re on the ground,” she said.
He opened the plane’s outer door as a utility truck rolled a metal stairway up to the fuselage. “Well, enjoy your stay.”
“I’m sure I will.”
A bearded man in orange overalls hustled up the steps toward Angela, open umbrella tilted into the driving snow. “Welcome to Jackson Hole, Ms. Day,” he called loudly over the roar of the idling jet engines, holding the umbrella above her head. “Careful,” he warned, holding out his arm and helping her down the slick metal stairs. “Over there,” he directed when they reached the ground, pointing toward a Ford Expedition that had swung out onto the icy tarmac.
As they neared the SUV, he handed her the umbrella, then jogged ahead and opened the passenger door. A moment later she was in- side and the cold, wind, and exhaust smell were gone, replaced by warmth and the soothing aromas of leather, tobacco, and coffee.
“Good evening, Ms. Day. Welcome to Jackson Hole.”
Angela took a deep breath, then glanced over at the driver. He was a big man wearing a ten-gallon hat and a leather jacket with a thick wool collar. In the dim dashboard lights she thought she detected friendly eyes. Beneath his full mustache there was a wide smile.
“Is everyone out here always so darn polite?”
“Why wouldn’t we be?” he answered as a baggage handler placed her luggage in the back. “After all, this is paradise.”
“Sure it is,” she said, watching the snow whip past the window.
“Helluva night, huh?”
“Yes,” she agreed, “especially when you’d rather crawl across hot coals than fly.” She hesitated. “And you can call me Angela. After all the ‘Ms. Day this’ and ‘Ms. Day that’ on the way out here, I’m starting to feel like an old maid.”
The driver shook his head as he shifted into first gear. “I don’t think anybody’s going to mistake you for an old maid.”
He had a nice voice, she decided. Confident but not cocky. Strong but not overwhelming. Soothing, almost. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nuthin’,” he said, guiding the SUV out of the small airport and onto a deserted main road already covered by two inches of fresh powder. “I don’t want to get into any hot water.”
“Tell me what you meant. I’ll have to mention your remark to Mr. Lawrence if you don’t.”
“That wouldn’t be very nice,” he protested, picking up a coffee mug sitting in the console between them and taking a swallow.
She grinned. “Oh, I’m only kidding.” She searched for a place on the dashboard to put her makeup kit down.
“Let me move all that for you.” He put the mug back down, then reached in front of her and slid two revolvers and several boxes of ammunition out of her way.
“That’s quite an arsenal you’ve got there.”
“Hey, you never know what you’re gonna run into in Wyoming. Yellowstone’s only thirty miles north of here and every once in a while the grizzlies come down out of the park to see what’s what. I have no desire to end up bear chow. That’s not how I picture myself going out.”
“Which would explain the .44 Magnum,” she agreed, eyeing the larger gun now resting on the dash in front of the steering wheel. “Even though I assume most bears are hibernating, given that it’s the middle of February.”
“But what about the long-barreled .22?”
“You sure know your guns.”
“I’ve had some experience.”
“Interesting. Well, the .22’s for rattlesnakes. And before you say anything, no, there aren’t any of them around this time of year, either.” He hesitated. “The guns are my security blanket, just in case.”
“Just in case what?”
“Just in case.”
She glanced over at him, trying to see beneath the brim of his ten-gallon. “You didn’t tell me your name.”
“John Tucker,” he answered, reaching across the console without taking his eyes off the road. “Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you, too.” She could tell he was trying to be gentle, but she still felt immense strength in his grip. “So, what did you mean?”
Tucker smiled. “You’re like a dog on a bone, aren’t you?”
“That’s one way to put it.” She’d never been accused of lacking persistence.
“Uh-oh. Now I’ve gone and done it.”
“Tell me what you meant.”
“Jesus, just that you’re an attractive woman. At least, what I can see of you. But saying something like that can get a man in a lot of trouble these days.”
“It won’t get you in trouble with me,” she assured him. “At my age I welcome all compliments.”
“Your age? I bet you aren’t more than twenty-five, right?”
“Really?” Tucker pushed out his lower lip and raised his eyebrows.
“Does that surprise you?”
“A bit,” he admitted.
“It shouldn’t. Jake Lawrence is one of the wealthiest men in the world. Would you really expect him to waste time on a business meeting with someone who’s just a few years out of college?”
Tucker took another sip of coffee. “Right,” he murmured softly. “A business meeting.”
For a while Angela watched the snow falling in front of the headlights. “Have you worked for Mr. Lawrence very long?” she finally asked.
“Almost twenty years. I manage the working ranch where you’ll be staying.”
“Yeah. We have about three thousand head of cattle here in Jackson.”
“How big is the ranch?”
“Four hundred thousand acres.”
Angela whistled. “My God.”
“And Mr. Lawrence won’t ever see more than a small part of it from the ground. Which is a shame, because some of the scenery is spectacular. He’s been all over it in a chopper, but you can’t really appreciate it from the air. You have to immerse yourself in something to truly appreciate its beauty.” Tucker shrugged. “But Mr. Lawrence is a busy man. I suppose he doesn’t have time for that.”
Angela looked over at him again. “Are you from Wyoming, Mr. Tucker?”
“No. My father was in the military, so I moved around quite a bit when I was young. I’m from a lot of places. And please call me John.”
“I bet you don’t have many women come out here on business, do you, John?”
“More than you’d think,” he said quietly.
“What did you say?”
“Oh, nothing. Just reminding myself of something I need to take care of in the morning.”
“Uh-huh.” Angela relaxed into the seat. “So, what’s the reclusive Jake Lawrence really like?”
“Can’t say,” Tucker replied.
Almost as if he’d been coached, Angela thought. “What is it with you people? Is everyone scared to death of him, or does he have all of you drinking some kind of secret punch? Cherry Kool-Aid with a kick?”
“Mr. Lawrence protects his privacy. I respect that.”