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"What the hell was that? Mel, what's going on up there?"
"Nothing. Be down in ten. Everything's under control." Five minutes ago she wouldn't have been lying. Jimmy Doolittle once supposedly said there was no good reason to be flying near thunderstorms in peacetime. But then Jimmy had never fought against a lightning storm in a helicopter by dropping water from a Bambi Bucket.
She'd been in the air for five straight hours, swooping down through a double rainbow only once to take on fifty gallons of Jet A fuel. Thunderheads continued to gather mass in the surrounding quadrants, making it harder to dodge around the clouds. Rain battered against her windshield as the ride grew bumpy. When the call came to pull back, she ignored it, shifting her headphones from her ears to ring about her neck. And she kept working, beating back the flames one hundred gallons at a time. Wind swirled around the Long Ranger, hitting her from every possible direction as she went down for another dip. She'd taken the front door off for the water drop and leaves were blowing around in the cockpit. After putting in some big power changes to maintain altitude, she had started to worry. But she didn't second-guess her decision to stay. There was no way she'd let the fire beat her.
She'd stayed in the air as darkness gathered. Knowing she had to be on the ground by 8:55 p.m. or face the wrath of the Bureau of Land Management safety gods, again, she dismissed the terse order to call it a night. She had until thirty minutes past sunset to make every second count. Then it was Miller time, not before. With position and instrument lights on, she followed her GPS heading. She was on the radio to her crew chief when halfway up the canyon, a thousand feet above the ground, at seventy-five-percent torque and ninety knots, she smacked into a solid wall of air.
The impact threw her into her shoulder straps. She heard a loud thump followed by the whine of rotor RPM decaying. Thinking it was engine failure, she lowered the collective while a million things ran through her mind. Should she turn the routine call into one of distress? Start emergency procedures? Was she going down? But then the rotor RPM came back and with a gust of relief, she realized she was still in control. Elated to get through what left too many aircraft looking like confetti, she sped on to Lake View, where the ground had never felt better.
With the blades still making a lazy circle overhead, she hopped out of the cockpit to toss her helmet to the older man waiting there.
"That was close," she told her uncle as they both ducked low to trot out of the rotor wind. "I must have hit a micro burst or wind sheer. Bam. Like a brick wall. Make sure you give her a good once-over before we go up again to see that nothing was rattled loose."
"I can tell you what's rattled loose," came another angry voice. "Your brain, that's what. What the hell were you doing up there, Mel?"
Taking a breath to maintain her calm, Mel turned to face Quinn Naylor, her boss and long-ago, one-night lover, with a disarming smile. "I call it flying, Quinn."
"By the seat of your tight pants," he shouted back at her, not in the least appeased by her levity. "I call it reckless. I thought I made myself clear when I brought you in on this gig. There's no room in the air for any John or Jane Wayne heroics. That's not how I run my show."
"I was getting the job done," she yelled back at him, giving up on civility to go toe-to-toe on the tarmac. She was an impressive five-ten in her La Sportiva boots, but he had a good five inches of tightly compacted fury on her.
"Not with my crew. Not anymore. Go home, Mel. I'm pulling your ticket."
Too angry to feel shock or distress, she pushed into his face with an aggressive snarl. "Take your crew and shove it. I'll catch another ride."
"No, you won't."
The flat, brutal way he said that finally cut through her arrogant pose. She knew a moment of reassessing regret, but it was seconds too late to stop the rest of his decree. "No one's going to call you up, not even when the only thing they have left to throw at the fire is spit. You're a menace up there, Mel. You're dangerous and you're unreliable, just like your old man."
Then, in a soft voice that was somehow so much worse than his screaming of minutes ago, he repeated, " Go home, Mel. There's nothing for you here."
She turned away from him, furious, frightened and too prideful to let him, of all people, see it. "Thanks for nothing, Quinn." She didn't need charity from the likes of Quinn Naylor. And she didn't need to invest heart and soul where she wasn't appreciated. She gripped her uncle's arm and tugged hard. "Come on, Charley. Let's go."
As she stalked away, her reluctant crew chief uncle in tow, Quinn yelled after them, " Tell Karen hello for me."
"I'll do that, Quinn," Charley agreed affably and was almost pulled off his feet for his troubles.
As she stuffed her few belongings into her duffel, the magnitude of what had just happened settled in deep and dire. She paused, leaning on her palms on the edge of the bed, panic swelling inside until her head ached with it. Until her eyes swam with it. What if he was true to his word? What if he got her blackballed from doing contract work in this, the height of fire season? When she was counting so desperately on the money to keep their business afloat? To keep them afloat.
What had she done?"
"Don't worry, Mellie." Her uncle's big hand fell warm and comforting on her shoulder. "You and Quinn just always seem to rub each other the wrong way, but I can't believe he'd turn his back on our friendship."
"I hope you're right, Charley." For all their sakes.
But he wasn't. The next morning proved Quinn Naylor a man of his word. There was no work to be found, no crew that would have her, even with pilots scarce and long hours looming. She had every door politely but firmly closed in her face until all that was left was a disgraced retreat. She wouldn't go begging. No matter how bad things got. If that was what Naylor was hoping for, he could wait until this particular hell froze over.
"We'll get by," Charley vowed with his eternal optimism. But he wasn't the one paying the bills. He wasn't the one writing the checks, hoping the bank would clear them. He wasn't the one looking over the long list of debts owed, dividing them into piles of can-wait, not-yet, and last-call. They needed to make repairs. They needed to pay their insurance premium. And it would be nice to have something in the refrigerator other than beer and tortillas.
"We'll find a way," she assured him with a confidence she was far from feeling.
She wasn't one for belief in miracles. Especially when she opened the door of her makeshift home in the back of their hangar and started picking up the scattering of mail strewn about the floor. Bills. Second Notice. Final Notice. She sorted and tossed them one by one into the wastebasket by the door. Problem solved. For the moment. Then, she caught sight of the light blinking on her answering machine. Hoping it was a crew leader having come to his senses, she hit playback.
"Ms. Parrish, my name is Jack Chaney. I'm looking for a pilot with a lot of moxie. If you're looking for a job that pays a helluva lot more than you're making now, give me a call."
"What's that all about?, Charley asked, observing her odd concentration.
"I'm not quite sure. Maybe just the life ring we need to keep us from going under for the third time."
She'd made the follow-up call to Personal Protection Professionals out of curiosity. What would a private protection agency want with someone like her? But after talking, first over the phone, then face-to-face, with its owner and badass operator Jack Chaney she got to thinking that maybe, just maybe, she was in the right place at exactly the right time. Chaney was looking for someone to do piloting security work on an on-call basis. The money was good. The money was actually greatand just the infusion of life-sustaining capital to support her and her uncle's air charter service until Quinn Naylor saw fit to give her a break. There was nothing in the short assignments to get in the way of the everyday operation of Wings of Fire. And Chaney clinched the deal by paying off the balance on her overdue insurance to keep her airborne. She had the talent and the tools and he had the connections. A marriage made in bartering heaven.
Four weeks later, feeling silly in her formfitting flight suit with its howling wolf logo stitched over her left breast, with her licensed weapon tucked almost as an embarrassment under the seat of her Bell Long Ranger, she set down in Las Vegas to pick up her first assignment. Newly trained in firearms skills, hand-to-hand, surveillance and the legal ins and outs of employing any of those methods under the guise of a bodyguard she felt strong and confident in her new role. Until she got her first look at her client.
Xander Caufield, an insurance specialist carrying a fortune in rare stamps to an exhibit/trade show in Reno. That didn't sound too dangerous. Or exciting. She was to ferry him wherever he wanted to go and keep him and the contents of his locked case safe. Not exactly shuttling military secrets. Old stamps were about as thrilling as the envelopes she'd tossed into the waste can. She couldn't imagine any high-level intrigue going on there. But it was her first sizable paycheck, slotted to cover her fuel bill, and she would take it as seriously as the number of zeroes ahead of the decimal point.
She waited in the broil of the midday Nevada sun as a sleek limo approached, fighting the impulse to shade her eyes to get a better look at the man stepping out of that big backseat toting a metal courier case and a garment bag. With the glare off the hardtop, all she could discern were polished shoes and an immaculate suit. The first thing that impressed her, because she couldn't see his features, was the way he moved. He had a quick, aggressive step implying no hesitation in wherever he was going. An all-business stride. Together with the expensive suit, that got her hot-guy Geiger counter ticking away at a brisk pace. Then he crossed into the shade of the Ranger and the needle went off the charts.
He was Maxim gorgeous. Dark, styled, but in no way soft. Chiseled masculine features, a heavy slash of brows, uncompromising mouth and a direct stare that could probably bend steel bars. She caught herself before wetting her lips but allowed an inner rowl-rowl. His gaze touched on her briefly as she came forward to greet him, her hand extended to take his bag. "Mr. Caufield, I'm Mel Par"
"Let's go. I'm in a hurry."
She rocked back on her heels as he strode by, her brows lifting slightly. Aware that her hand still hung in midair, she scrubbed it against the other one and let both fall to her sides. "All righty then. Welcome aboard, buckle up and we'll get airborne."
He climbed up into the copter, giving her a glimpse of a monumentally nice butt. But since he was acting like one, her interest cooled considerably. Sometimes good looks just couldn't overcome bad manners. A shame.
He settled into the back, draping his suit bag over one seat, strapping into the other. Situating the case between his elegantly clad feet, he looked purposefully out the window. Dismissing her as if she were invisible.
Great. See if she'd offer the in-flight movie.
After a quick preflight check and a chat with the tower, she had them up and off the flat Vegas desert.
The flight was silent and uneventful. Easy money. Because small talk with her coldly gorgeous passenger was off the table, she fiddled with the radio, trying to pick up chatter on the latest blaze chewing its way through remote California forest land, heading for her back door. So far, they were trying to contain it with backfires and burnouts, but it was proving to be a tricky beast. Dry conditions and high winds had it skipping and shifting one step ahead of their best efforts to suppress it.
Listening to the dispatcher and the back-and-forth banter, a fierce longing to be in the thick of it had her clenching her teeth and calling down all manner of ills upon Quinn Naylor. It didn't matter that she had a job, that her time was well paid for by her arrogant passenger in back. If she thought there was the slightest chance she could zip over the state line and be toting hand crews and hotshots from dawn until dusk, she'd have pushed Mr. Xander I'mtoo-damned-important-to-give-you-a-polite-nod Caufield out the back door to let his glacial attitude warm a bit out in the sun and sand. But that wasn't going to happen and Caufield's comfy ride was guaranteed for the moment.
And it didn't hurt that he was so easy on the eyes. She settled back in her seat and tried to calm her mood toward her meal ticket.
Mel appreciated affluent menfrom afar. She enjoyed fantasizing about those almost too pretty glam boys in the designer suits who attended the theater and drove cars with unpronounceable names. The ones who wore silky scarves or pastel sweaters draped around their necks for no apparent reason and had their nails done. After a long day in the air, after sharing raucous laughs and longnecks with the crew, she found herself imagining what it would be like spending the evening with a man who didn't smell of smoke and sweat, who didn't pepper his sentences with profanity and fire acronyms, who could talk about something other than weather systems, fuel management and the closest available waitress with big hooters. A man who didn't live from season to season on a puny GS rate that hardly covered the bets laid down at the pool table. One who could take her to a restaurant that didn't serve hot wings as the main entrée.
The men she knew were her drinking buddies, her coworkers, and not the stuff of romantic dreams. In the air and on the ground, they were heroes. Up close, they tended to be petulant, obnoxious, controlling or just plain more trouble than they were worth. She didn't actually know what she'd do with one of those swanky cover boys if he stepped off his pedestal and into her rather grimy check-to-check existence. But she did like ogling them. And Caufield was worth a long, long look.