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Standing on the floating dock, D.J. Hatcher flipped his aviator glasses atop his head. "I remember youLiza Miller."
The way his steel-gray eyes flitted over her loose-fitting summer blouse and slacks made her wonder if he could see right through them. But the slacks were lined and the blouse wasn't see-through, so of course he couldn't.
All the same, her face grew warm. "You remembered my name." It had been nearly three years since they'd last seen each other, and she was impressed. "What a memory."
But then, it probably wasn't every day that the pilot dealt with a sobbing disaster of a passenger.
D.J. stood by the ladderlike steps to help any of the nine other passengers onto the float to climb aboard the sea-plane. Not quite ready to board, Liza shaded her eyes from the late-morning Seattle sun and studied him. A good five to six inches taller than she was, D.J. wore faded jeans and a blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Above the shirt pocket, the blue-and-white Island Air logo. Military-short dark brown hair, strong jaw, thick wrists, broad shoulders and flat belly. Narrow hips, masculine bulge .
She adjusted her gaze and cleared her throat. "I remember you, too."
Though three years ago she'd been too distraught to appreciate what a good-looking male he was. Distraught? She'd been a basket case. Who wouldn't have been, when a few hours earlier, just before their wedding, her fiancé had announced he was in love with someone else?
Liza had never forgotten the man who'd whisked her away from Halo Island that day. After all the pain and humiliation, D.J.'s kindness and compassion had done much to soothe her raw feelings.
"So " Hands low on hiships, he stood there, the brilliant blue June sky and glistening water of Lake Union providing the perfect backdrop. "How you doing these days?"
"Much better than the last time I saw you." Which was absolutely true. The past was behind her now, and she was almost at the point where she wanted to start dating again.
"Didn't I say you'd be okay?"
Liza smiled as she recalled that D.J. had been through his own emotional hell. He'd shared his story the same night she'd left Halo Island, telling her about his wife of less than two years running off with his best friend from college. Who also happened to be his business partner.
"What about you?" she asked. "How are you?"
He didn't quite meet her eyes, however, making her wonder.
"Heading back to the island for a visit, huh?"
Liza nodded. "My grandmother has organized a family reunion." Following which she was going to stay on the island to help Gram move to a retirement community after fifty-four years in the same house. The very thought of emptying and selling the cottage where Gram and Grandpop had lived their entire married life Well, it was going to be an emotional six weeks.
The last of the other passengers had disappeared into the plane, and D.J. glanced at his watch. "We'll be taking off soon. You'd best board."
As Liza climbed the ladder, she could feel his gaze on her. For the first time in three years she wished she'd dressed in clothes that fit a little better, instead of the shapeless things she'd taken to wearing. But if you hid your figure and stopped wearing makeup, men left you alone. And she'd wanted to be left alone.
There was only one seat left, in the back. As Liza sat and fastened her seat belt, the plane bobbed gently in the water. From here, if she stretched her neck sideways, she could see D.J. up front, busy with final preparations prior to takeoff.
He'd slipped on a headset and was fiddling with the controls, his broad shoulders straining his shirt.
Be still my heart, she thought, which was such a cliché that she had to snicker. And marvel at herself. Why this male? Why now?
She hadn't paid much attention to men in agesnot since that awful afternoon Timothy had left her stranded by the altar of the Halo Island Church. But she noticed now.
The plane's engine roared to life, then settled to a steady hum. Since there was no flight attendant, D.J. swiveled in the pilot's seat and spoke to everyone himself. "Welcome aboard Island Air. I'm D.J. Hatcher, and I love working here." His mouth quirked. "I also own the business." Passengers laughed. He explained that Island Air also flew to Vancouver, B.C., Alaska and other places. "Please fasten your seat belts and leave them buckled," he said. Then he gave a quick rundown of the length of the flightapproximately one hourand described their route over Puget Sound. There were no toilets on board, no food and nothing to drink. Sick sacks and briefing cards were tucked in the backs of the seats, with life vests stowed underneath. He pointed out the emergency exits, which were located on both sides of the plane.
Finished with his remarks, he turned around and began to taxi the plane.
The woman sitting across the aisle from Liza, a pretty blonde who looked about her age, turned to her and bit her lip. "I've never been on a seaplane before. I'm nervous."
"Don't be. It's a little bumpy, but the view is spectacular. And D.J.'s a terrific pilot."
"He sure is cute. I saw you talking to him." She looked envious. "Is he your boyfriend?"
"No." For the second time Liza felt her cheeks turn pink. "He's just a friend." Even though she'd only talked to him that one evening, they'd shared enough to make her consider him more than an acquaintance. "What brings you to Halo Island?"
"A former colleague of mine, actually my boss for a short time, lives here. She and her husband invited me to come visit, so I'm going over for a three-day weekend. I'm Kendra Eubanks."
She offered her hand. Liza shook it. "Liza Miller. You'll love the island."
As the plane lifted from Lake Union, Kendra glanced out. Then turned back to Liza. "So you've been to Halo Island before?"
"I was born and raised there. Maybe I know your friend. What's her name?"
"Tina Chase is her married name. She used to be Tina Morrell. When she got married and moved back here, she recommended me as her replacement. We've been friends ever since."
"I remember Tina. She was a year ahead of me in school, but we worked on the yearbook and pep squad together. I haven't seen her since she went off to college." Liza had always liked the plucky girl, who'd survived the loss of both parents and gone on to make a success of herselfthanks to the loving care of her fellow islanders.
"Last I heard, she had a great job in Seattle. I had no idea she'd gotten married or moved back to the island."
"It all happened last Christmas. Do you know Ryan Chase? He has a little girl and he recently bought the Halo Island Bank. I think he moved to the island from someplace else."
"I don't recognize the name, but I haven't been back in three years." Since that horrible afternoon. The worst part of it all had been Liza's mother, who'd actually blamed Liza for the whole mess.
"No wonder this happened," she'd said. "If you'd quit your teaching job and moved in with Timothy, instead of forcing him to endure a long-distance relationship I will never live this down."
Liza pushed away the painful memory. "He must've settled there after I left."
"You haven't been home in three years?" Kendra's eyebrows arched. "Wow, that's a long time."
"I've been busy." Avoiding her mother and Art, her mother's brand-new husband, who lived there. Liza had only seen them once in three years, at their wedding in Barbados the previous summer. A retired stockbroker, Art certainly had enough money for the expensive celebration. It had been a brief, awkward reunion, with Diane pretending she'd never said those awful things and Liza still smarting, although not about to pick a fight and ruin the occasion. Her own father had died fifteen years earlier, and she was happy that her mother had found another man to love. "But my grandmother, who lives on the island, has visited me often."
They called each other several times a week, too. Whereas Liza and her mother spoke only at Christmas and on birthdays, their conversations stilted and brief. Her mother had never apologized for what she'd said and Liza knew she never would. That was not Diane Julian's way.
"What do you do?" Kendra asked.
"I'm an elementary school teacher up in Bellingham." Which was ninety miles north of Seattle. She'd been teaching for six years now, two of them working as a substitute teacher for three different schools. "Or I was. I was just laid off." Again.
"I'm sorry," Kendra said.
"I'm used to it. When you don't have a continuing contract, it happens a lot."
It didn't seem to matter that Liza lived and breathed teaching and that she gave her heart and soul to the kids in her classrooms. She didn't have enough seniority to keep the same job from one year to the next, and every time she had to move on it felt like a big slap in the face. Until she had a continuing contract, there would be no job stability. And Liza wanted stability. She was tired of not knowing what would happen at the end of every school year.
"How long are you staying on the island?" Kendra asked.
"Through July." In no mood for further conversation, Liza nodded at Kendra's window. "It's a gorgeous day and you really don't want to miss the view."
When Kendra turned to look, Liza gave a quiet sigh of relief and stared out her own window. But with her life recently turned upside down, it was difficult to appreciate the sparkling water, flawless blue skies and the Cascade Mountains beyond.
Liza looked forward to being on the island again. Or would have if not for her mother. Fortunately, Diane and Art had scheduled a month-long trip to Australia, in celebration of their first anniversary. They were heading out early in July, a good week before Gram's move. Leaving Liza to shoulder the brunt of the packing and the move itself. Naturally.
But that was a month away. Liza dreaded facing her mother. Still, this visit wasn't about her, it was about her grandmother, who needed her.
And for Gram, Liza would have borne anything.
AS D.J. FLEW OVER the sound on a route as familiar to him as his own hand, he thought about Liza Miller. It'd been three years since he'd seen her, but he remembered that early evening trip as if it were yesterday. Summers were always swamped with tourists flying to and from the island, but on that particular flight she'd been his only passenger. He'd been headed to Seattle, anyway, in a piston Beaver, smaller than the ten-seat turbine Otter he was flying today, to hook up with the woman he was seeing at the time. Nothing serious. Just dinner, a movie and sex.
It had turned out to be a good thing that she was the only passenger, since she'd been a real mess. Not at first glance, however. Striding down the dock toward the seaplane, she'd moved with long, rolling steps. He remembered her hip-swinging walk, made memorable by a short skirt and great legs. The snug V-neck T-shirt had been nice, too. Nothing like the modest clothing she was wearing today.
He also remembered the stricken look in her redrimmed eyes, the wilted flowers woven into a fancy hairdo that looked as if it'd been through a windstorm. D.J. did not handle crying women well, especially when he was flying a plane. Wondering whether she was stable enough for the sometimes bumpy hour-long ride, he'd suggested she come back the next morning, when she felt better. He'd never forget her raised chin or her startling reply.
"If I stay on this island one more second, there's no telling what I might doincluding strangling my mother. Get me out of here now."
Since she was the only passenger, he'd invited her to sit in the copilot's seat up front. She'd slid in beside him, fastened her seat belt and sat mute and stiff as he taxied along the water and then lifted off.
The plane wasn't more than two hundred feet above the sound, with a spectacular view of the sinking sun, when she broke down. D.J. had to work the flaps in order to climb to two thousand feet, but the plane did most of the work, and so he'd been able to listen to her.
"And I thought mine was the worst story ever," he recalled saying. Then he'd shared his sorry past, to help her realize she wasn't the only person who'd ever been made a fool of. "Imagine catching your wife in bed with your so-called best friend and business partner." Talk about harsh. D.J. knew what shock and betrayal felt like, and he had called himself lunkhead, idiot and stupid more times than he could count. "You will get past this."
She'd sniffled. "At the moment I'm not so sure about that."
"What do you do, workwise?"
"I'm a teacher."
"Lose yourself in your job," he'd advised. "That'll help." It had certainly helped him.
More than once he'd thought about her, wondering how she was. She looked goodnot that a man could see much of her body in those clothes. With shoulder-length wavy brown hair, big green eyes and a generous mouth, she was just as pretty as he remembered. Much better, in fact, without the swollen eyes and runny nose.
No doubt she'd found some lucky guy to keep her warm at night. If D.J. had been into dating, he'd envy that boyfriend of hers. But he wasn't. With running the company and his money troubles demanding all his attention, who had time for dating? That and the fact that he did not intend to fall for any woman, ever again. Been there, done that, and it hurt like hell.
He'd lied when he'd told Liza he'd never been better. It'd been four years since Sheila and Ethan had run off together, and he was still untangling the financial mess they'd left him with. The five-year balloon payment on the loan he and Ethan had arranged when they'd bought and expanded Island Air was due the fifteenth of August, just eight short weeks away. If things had gone as planned, D.J. would have been able to save what he needed to make the payment. But life didn't always follow the path you expected. With a payroll, five planes to maintain and insure, climbing fuel bills and the mountain of debt that Sheila had run up, he'd spent every penny to keep the company and himself afloat.
D.J. didn't have the money he needed for the balloon payment. And now he was on the verge of losing the airline he loved, lived and breathed. On the verge of being a failure. At the thought of this his shoulders stiffened and his stomach knotted.
Ahead was the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the San Juan Islands. Halo Island was a thousand feet west. Time to forget his problems for a while and prepare for landing.
He adjusted the flaps, then pushed the mic button. "We're starting the descent, folks, so make sure those seat belts are fastened. After we land, please stay seated. I'll let you know when you can unbuckle."
He made his usual smooth landing, the plane's skis slicing through the water. Taxiing forward, he skimmed alongside a dock, pulled the throttle and braked to a stop. As soon as he killed the engine, he undid his own seat belt, stood and moved to the exit.
After opening and securing the door, he nodded at the passengers. "All right, you're free to leave. Hope you enjoyed the ride. Thanks for flying Island Air, and see you again."