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Sun beat down on the tarmac as Nash Fortune impatiently stopped his small plane just short of the runway. There was still one aircraft ahead of him, and it was filled with both eager and not so eager Air Force Academy cadets who were going up to practice their parachuting skills. The memory of his first jump from a plane had him grinning. That feeling of free-falling through space was the next best thing to flying.
Which was what he was here to do. If the plane ahead of him ever took off.
He figured he had about three hours until he was due at his grandmother's birthday party bash. And each minute that ticked by cut short his flight time.
The morning he'd just put in had made him yearn for some time in the sky. The wind had picked up steadily all day, and more than once he'd found himself looking out of his classroom window. Teaching strategic flight maneuvers in a simulation lab appealed to him on an intellectual level, and it did provide the occasional adrenaline rush. But it wasn't the same as the real thing.
This morning five of his students had asked him to open the lab and give them some extra practice time.
He'd had to talk several young pilots in training into and then out of a tailspin. As he had, he'd known exactly what the kids were feelingthe initial helplessness, followed by the flash of panic. And through it all the excitement of the challenge. Life and death hung on whether or not your reflexes were quick enough, your control strong enough to bring that plane out of a fatal spin. The thrill of meeting that kind of challenge and the ability to handle it was what made him become a pilot.
He'd managed to get all five of his students safely through their simulated maneuvers, but three hours in the lab hadn't relieved the restlessness he'd been experiencing lately. His single-engine Cessna was no fighter jetfar from it. But it was still a little honey of a plane.
His grandmother had given it to him a year ago when he'd started teaching at the Air Force Academy. If she hadn't had health problems, he'd have signed up for a third tour of duty in Afghanistan. She'd argued vehemently against his changing his plans. Her breast cancer was stage one, and a bevy of specialists had assured her that surgery and radiation was the treatment she needed. No chemo. She didn't even have to cut back on her work schedule. She was going to be fine.
But there'd been an opening that suited him in the Department of Military and Strategic Studies at the Air Force Academy, and he was determined to be close at hand when she was going through treatments. He'd lost his mother when he'd been born and his father when he was seven. Maggie Fortune was the only family he had, and vice versa. That meant that when the chips were down, they were a team. After all she'd stuck with him when he'd gone through that rough patch in his teens. The least he could do was stick with her now.
He glanced at his watch. Another two minutes had gone by and the plane in front of him hadn't budged. In his mind, he pictured the flight instructor running one last check on the equipment. He bit back a sigh. Patience had never been his long suit, but he'd had considerably less of it at thirteen. And he'd been so damn bored. All he could think of was that he had to wait five more yearseonsuntil he could apply to the Air Force Academy. And filling the headmaster's dresser drawers with frogs had seemed a great way to pass the time. His classmates would have elected him president of the student government organizationif he hadn't been kicked out of the school.
That was when his grandmother had given up on lecture and logic and sent him to Father Mike Flynn at the St. Francis Center for Boys.
He'd owe her forever for that decision. Not only had his boredom been relieved, but he'd made two lifetime friends, Gabe Wilder and Jonah Stone. Back in those days, the center and Father Mike had the reputation for being able to put troubled teens back on track. He supposed that he and his friends could be considered stellar examples of the program's success. Gabe, the son of legendary art thief Raphael Wilder, had not turned to a life of crime. Instead, he now headed up a security firm that was gaining a nationwide reputation. And Gabe was getting married soon to an FBI agent who specialized in white-collar crime. Jonah Stone, a savvy street kid, had become an equally savvy and successful entrepreneur. He now owned two nightclubs in San Francisco and a brand new one in Denver. Both his friends would be at his grandmother's birthday bash tonight.
So would he. If he ever got off the ground. He sent up a little prayer of thanksgiving as the plane ahead of him finally began to taxi. He waited for it to accelerate, watched it lift, then kept it in sight until it faded to a speck of silver in the brilliant blue sky.
After touching a finger to the medal around his neck, Nash let the Cessna rip. When it lifted, he welcomed the challenge of the windy crosscurrents, relished the bumps as he dipped one wing, leveled off, and nosed upward. The trees on the ridge ahead grew more distinct as they rushed towards him, then blurred as he shot the plane up and over them.
He spared a glance at the land dropping away below, and felt the restlessness begin to disappear. He had an hour to soar, to glide, to simply play in the sky.
His earliest memory of flying was sitting on his dad's lap in the pilot's seat and holding on to the wheel. During the months before his dad had been deployed to the Gulf War, they'd taken several flights together, and he'd graduated to the copilot's seat. His dad had promised to teach him to fly when he returned.
Pushing the memories and the regrets aside, Nash banked the plane, headed east, and climbed again. Today wasn't a day for thinking of anything. It was a day meant for simply flying. When the peaks and valleys below were merely ripples of lighter and darker green, he climbed even higher and took the plane into a first lazy loop.
Laughing, he soared into a second one and a third. Then he decided to execute what his students had been practicing in the lab all daytaking a plane into and out of a spin.
He deliberately made the "mistake" described in all the textbooks, the one he'd coached his students to make in the simulation. He banked the plane to the right, then applied the rudder to suddenly accelerate the rate of the turn. Adrenaline kicked in when he felt the plane stall and saw the nose dip below the horizon. Then the rotation began and the plane went into an uncontrolled spin.
If he hadn't been strapped in, centrifugal force would have thrown him to the other side of the cockpit and pinned him there. As it was, he could feel the straps cutting into his shoulders and hear them strain. He let himself absorb the thrill of the spin for a few seconds before he applied full right rudder and leveled the plane off. A glance down told him that he'd come out of the tailspin about one thousand feet above the ground.
Plenty of room to spare. He laughed and sent the plane climbing again.
A half hour later, it was with some regret that he headed the Cessna back to the airfield. A couple of spins was all he had time for today. That was the promise he'd made himself when he'd decided to take the plane up. But he was tempted
No, he was not going to be late for his grandmother's seventy-fifth birthday party.
Then he grinned again. One more loop wouldn't break his promise. So with the airfield in sight, he completed one more for the road.
Nash Fortune didn't bother to deny the charge as he faced Maggie Fortune, the tiny dynamo of a woman he loved most in the world. They stood on the balcony that opened off of her office. Below them her birthday party was in full swing. While the sun splashed red across the horizon, guests sipped champagne and nibbled at canapes as they clustered in groups around the pool or strolled along a maze of paths. The buzz of conversation and laughter mixed with the muted sounds of a string quartet.
A few moments ago, he and his grandmother had been standing with his friends Jonah and Gabe and Nicola, Gabe's new fiancée, at the far end of the pool. They'd all been catching up with Father Mike, and without warning, his yawn had just escaped. He'd thought he'd hidden it, but his grandmother's eagle eye had caught it and she'd announced that she needed to steal him away for a moment.
"Well? Am I right?"
What could he say? She was.
She wagged a finger at him. "What worries me is you yawned just like that the night you set Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock loose in the middle of my dinner party."
He grinned at her. "You remember my gerbils' names?"
"Of course. One of my dinner guests fainted, I nearly lost the deal I was negotiating, and my chef quit because no one ate his main course. All because your pets got loose from the Starship Enterprise." Her eyes, green as the emeralds she wore in her ears, twinkled at him and her lips twitched now just as they had on that long ago evening.
Nash took her hands in his. "Grams, your birthday bash is safe. I promise I haven't brought any gerbils or other small animals with me."
"That isn't the only mischief you used to get into when you weren't challenged enough. Do you recall when you were in fourth grade and you glued poor Katie Lynn Peabody to her desk? And you put the snake you'd brought in for show and tell in your teacher's desk?"
"Surely the statute of limitations has run out on those crimes. How about if I apologize for yawning?"
"Why in hell should you apologize?" Maggie frowned at him.
"Because it's made you worry." He drew his grandmother into his arms and just held her for a moment. Maggie's hair was pure white now instead of the raven color it had once been. But it was styled to perfection, and in her red silk pantsuit she looked as if she'd just stepped off the cover of a women's fashion magazine.
Looks weren't her only asset. She had one of the sharpest minds he'd ever encountered. For the past two decades, she'd run Fortune Enterprises, a large business empire that ranged from mining and real estate holdings to publishing. And twenty-one years ago, she'd also taken over the job of raising him after his father's untimely death in the Gulf War.
As he drew back, Nash wondered which she'd claim was the bigger of the two challenges.
"Thanks for the hug," she said. "They've always been your best method of trying to distract me. But not tonight. I didn't bring you up here just to scold you because you yawned at my birthday party."
She tapped a finger on his chest. "The problem is you're bored, period. I can see the signs. You're not sleeping well."
That was true although he'd never figured out how his grandmother could always tell.
"More lines around your eyes," she said with her usual knack for reading his mind. "And twice so far this evening, I've seen you gaze off into space. Admit it. I was right. You're regretting your decision to request a teaching assignment at the Air Force Academy."
"Not true," he said.
She held a hand up. "Let me finish. After all, I was responsible for your decision."
"Partly responsible. Have you ever thought that I might have needed to come home? That maybe I was a bit restless and bored before I learned about your surgery?"
She stared at him for a moment.
Nash fully sympathized with her surprise. It was the first time he'd admitted to himself that his current feeling of restlessness may have predated his teaching assignment. He might have been courting boredom even in Afghanistan.
She narrowed her eyes. "You've got the same problem your father had when he was about your age. Our country's wars are winding down. And you're getting older. You're starting to see that you can't fly those fighter planes forever. I imagine facing the young men and women who'll replace you in the classroom each day drives the point home even more sharply. So I'll tell you what I told your father. You can't stop time. You have to accept it and go with the flow."
He raised his brows.
Her lips twitched again. "I know. It's my milestone birthday we're celebrating, but your thirtieth wasn't that long ago. And you can't be a fly-boy forever. Your father was getting a bit bored with the life of a pilot in peace time before the Gulf War erupted."
Nash captured one of her hands in his again. As usual, she was spot-on about some of what he was feeling.
"You could always think of making a career change."
He met her eyes without disguising the surprise in his. From the time he'd been a child, she'd supported his dream of one day following in his father's footsteps and becoming a pilot in the Air Force. She'd never once put any kind of pressure on him to consider taking over one of the many companies she ranin spite of the fact that when she'd lost his father, she'd lost the son she'd expected to one day fill her shoes.
He narrowed his eyes as a sudden thought occurred to him. "Something has changed. You've received some bad news from your doctors."
"No, nothing like that. I'm fine. I'd tell you in a heartbeat if I wasn't." Maggie raised the hand holding hers and patted it. "I'm just planting a seed about the future. It's my birthday. I have a right to plant seeds."
Nash laughed. "You have the right to plant seeds whenever you want." And they had a tendency to take root and grow. Johnny Appleseed had nothing on his grandmother in that department. But he was beginning to wonder just what seed she'd intended to plant when she'd brought him up here to the balcony.
Maggie continued to meet his gaze. "I also have a right to worry. And perhaps feel a bit guilty."
"Guilty? About what?"