Former Navy pilot Marlee Stein has only a few simple goals when she and her young daughter, Jo Beth, move home to Whitepine, Montana. Help her brother run Cloud Chasers, their family's charter air service, fly mercy missions for Angel Fleet, and be a good mother to Jo Beth, who's still dealing with the loss of her father.
Meeting a man like park ranger Wylie Ames is not one of those goals. The feeling's mutual; he's not exactly thrilled with Marlee, either, even though his son, Dean, is beginning to love Jo Beth and her mother. Gradually a friendship forms between Wylie and Marlee and then more. Surprisingly, wonderfully, more.
Marlee becomes his friend and lover, but when the unexpected happens, she has to be his angel, too.
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MARLEE STEIN TOPPED a ridge, leaving behindWhitepine, Montana, the town closest to where she'd been born and raised. She rolled down the driver's window, breathing in the autumn scent of the piney wilderness, and felt herself relax. Until then, she hadn't been aware of how tense she'd gotten on the long drive from San Diego.
Who was she kidding? She'd been riddled with tension for the past five years.
But now, on this lonely stretch of highway with nothing but fall sunlight sprinkling pine-needle patterns across her wind-shield, she began to shed the stress that had become so crushing.
She'd realized that the sense of heaviness and regret might always be with her. It was barely a year since she'd lost Cole to the ravages of lymphatic cancer. Too young. His life snuffed out at thirty-six. There was so much they hadn't done. One of the many things they'd talked about but never got around to was visiting this beautiful country Marlee loved.
They'd been introduced by mutual friends. Had dated for a whirlwind thirty days, married on base in a fever pitch driven by the demands of their jobs—she, a navy helicopter pilot on the verge of shipping out; he an officer with an eye to one day commanding his own ship. It seemed a lifetime ago, those scant six years they'd shared. Or not shared, since much of it had been spent apart. But...so many dreams, all left in tatters. Widowed at thirty-four, Marlee was running home to hide.
No, to rebuild a shattered life—according to her twin brother, anyway.
Mick Callen, her twin, knew about rebuilding a life. A pilot, too, he'd been shot down over Afghanistan—what was it—four years ago? Mick had come home to Whitepine and forged a new life. On almost a weekly basis during the past awful year, he'd insisted that Marlee could do the same. She wanted to believe him.
Averting her eyes from the ribbon of highway, she glanced in the rearview mirror of her packed-to-the-ceiling Ford Excursion. Jo Beth slept on. Without doubt, her daughter was the most precious part of her too-brief marriage.
Maybe their lives could get back on track. Mick thought so, or he wouldn't have badgered his twin to join the family air-freight business, Cloud Chasers, originally started by their grandfather, Jack Callen. Everybody called him Pappy. He'd taught her and Mick to fly anything with wings, and they'd developed a love affair with flying.
It seemed unreal that they'd both come full circle. Fate, maybe? In the days immediately following Cole's death, Marlee had thought about the circle of life, but Whitepine was the last place she'd envisioned herself ending up. Big plans, she'd discovered, were best left to starry-eyed innocents. Reality made its own claims. And to think she and Cole had worried that her naval career presented a greater risk of death. She, who'd done two tours in the Gulf.
Releasing a sigh, she wiped a sweaty palm on her jeans. Really baggy jeans, she noticed, and grimaced. She'd lost weight—was down to a hundred and five pounds. Skeletal, her lieutenant commander had growled when he'd signed her discharge papers.
Mick would probably be shocked. Or maybe not. He'd suffered through his own months of hell in military hospitals after he took a legful of shrapnel and debris from his F/A-18, when a handheld surface-to-air missile blasted him out of the sky.
The Callen twins, who'd left Whitepine for the naval academy with grandiose ideas, had come full circle, all right.
A mile to go. Nervous, Marlee wasn't altogether sure what to expect. Three years ago Mick had said he'd found Cloud Chasers in sad shape. Pappy Jack apparently suffered from arteriosclerotic heart disease, which caused bouts of dementia. It must be true; otherwise he'd never have let the business decline.
Through hard work, Mick said he'd enticed old customers back and added new accounts. He regularly groused about needing an extra pair of hands. Marlee hoped he truly did. Because it was crucial to end her former mother-in-law's influence on Jo Beth. Rose Stein spoiled her and undermined Marlee's control. It had taken an unpleasant court skirmish to defeat her attempt at custody.
Dipping into the last valley, Marlee was finally home. The family holdings, house business—the whole panorama—was a welcome sight. The main log house and the three smaller cabins that were added over the fifty years Pappy built Cloud Chasers.
Marlee battled tears as she saw the runway, still with that tacky wind sock at the end. Home looked refreshingly the same. As did the metal hangar with its add-on maintenance bay and cubbyhole office—so small an area their mom used to complain about it daily when she answered phones and kept the books. Before Shane and Eve Callen were killed coming home one foggy night. At an unmarked train crossing out of Whitepine. Two more senseless deaths.
Marlee blinked rapidly and swung onto the gravel drive. Memories of the parents they'd lost when she and Mick were starting junior high threatened to overwhelm her; instead, she busied herself counting planes. A single-engine Piper Arrow and a newer turboprop Piper Seneca, a silver gleam in the last bay. The battered, refurbished Huey army helicopter she loved sat in the clearing between the smaller two cabins.
Marlee could handle every machine there. But she'd told Mick she wouldn't fly. As Jo Beth's sole guardian, she owed it to her daughter not to take any more risks. Her brother had expressed disappointment, but in the end he'd agreed that if she reduced his overflowing paperwork and helped ride herd on Pappy, who sometimes tended to wander, it'd be enough. A godsend, in fact. So here she was.
Her thoughts of Mick and Pappy Jack must have made them materialize—there they were, looking solid and welcoming and, well—beautiful.
She jammed on the brakes and the Ford's tires skidded. Uncaring, Marlee jumped out, flinging her arms wide. Hugging Mick, she felt her tears on his blue cotton shirt. Still tall and blond and muscular, her twin squeezed her hard. And when he let go, Pappy Jack hugged her, too. At eighty-five, he was thinner than she remembered. His full head of hair was nearly white where it'd been nut-brown. Still the same, though, were his aquamarine eyes, a trait borne by all Callens.And his shimmered with unshed tears.
All three began talking at once. They were stopped abruptly by a wail from inside the Excursion. Spinning, Marlee dashed to the open door. She tried unsuccessfully to quiet the sobs and coax five-year-old Jo Beth Stein out to meet her uncle and great-grandpa. "Hey, tiddledywink, I'm right here. It's okay, I haven't left you. Jo Beth, this is our new home. Come say hi to Uncle Mick, and to Pappy Jack. Remember I showed you pictures of them before we packed my albums?"
A little girl with a mop of brown curls and weepy hazel eyes held a soft-bodied doll in one arm as if her life depended on it. She scrubbed her cheeks with her free hand but didn't venture out of the SUV.
Marlee turned to the men. In an undertone she said, "Maybe if you went back inside to wait... I explained about her crying jags and temper tantrums, didn't I? They started after Cole died and escalated through my tug-of-war with Rose. I'm hoping..." Marlee raked a hand through her tawny gold hair as her eyes begged her brother's understanding.
"No problem, sis. We'll take your luggage. Mrs. Gibson swabbed out the largest of the cabins for you. Or if you'd rather sleep in the main house until your furniture arrives, your old room's made up. It has twin beds if you want Jo Beth to share."
Marlee waved a hand toward the Ford. "What you see is our life in a nutshell."
Pappy peered in the windows of the SUV. "That old broad stole your house, furniture and everything?"
She corrected his misimpression. "Cole and I rented a furnished condo because we were rarely home. As soon as I got pregnant, we decided to buy a house." Marlee looked pained. "Pappy, it was during house hunting that I noticed Cole seemed tired. Finally, after weeks of tests, he was diagnosed."
She would have let it go, but her grandfather said, "So, where did Cole's mother get off trying to take your kid away from you?"
"Didn't Mick tell you?" Her glance darted to her brother, then back to Pappy Jack. "Right after Jo Beth was born and I went off desk duty, I got orders to ship out. That's when we let the apartment go and moved in with Rose. At the time we didn't know how else to manage, what with a new baby and Cole undergoing treatments. We...just, uh, counted on the treatments working." She sighed and fiddled with Jo Beth's cap of curls.
"Don't sweat it," Mick said, ruffling his shorter, sun-lightened hair. "The cabin has the basics. We can add stuff as you figure out what's missing. If you open up the back, Pappy and I can haul in your suitcases."
Nodding, Marlee retrieved her keys. "Maybe we'll sleep in the house until Jo Beth gets more comfortable. Set the two small bags in my old room, okay? Everything else can go to the cabin." She couldn't help but notice Mick's prominent limp even before he picked up the suitcases. That gave Marlee pause. He'd told her he was fine now.
It took the better part of forty minutes to convince Jo Beth that she needed to go inside.
"Sis, I have freight to pick up in Kalispell for an early-morning delivery," Mick announced. "And I've got an appointment, so I'll be gone a couple of hours. Settle in, and if you feel up to it after dinner, I'll show you around the office. You can take over where I left off billing. I'm warning you, I haven't done any paperwork in months."
"Filing's time-consuming nonsense," Pappy snorted. "All you need to keep the IRS guys happy is a record of income versus outgo. Most years, the latter tops the former," he said, sounding more savvy than her brother let Marlee believe.
"Frankly, Mick, I'm anxious to start. I want to earn my keep. I hope you don't object to Jo Beth playing with her toys in the office while I work."
"Why would I? Mom raised us out there until we were old enough to tag after Dad and Pappy."
A smile blossomed, the first genuine smile she'd felt in weeks. But then she watched Mick walk toward the Piper Arrow. She wasn't mistaken; he favored his left leg. Maybe his old injury was affected by weather. The ground here looked as if it'd rained not long ago.
She took Jo Beth by the hand. "Pappy, while Mick's gone, I'll unpack a few boxes and suitcases and find storage space in the cabin. I want to dig out Jo Beth's toys so she'll feel at home. Care to tag along?"
"Nope. I let myself get involved in one of those silly afternoon soaps. You and the little squeak just come on back to the house whenever the spirit moves you."
Marlee laughed. Pappy used to call her little squeak, too. Being home felt good. Natural, as though she hadn't grown up and been left to deal with grown-up matters. If anybody deserved to kick back in the afternoon with TV it was Pappy. He'd worked from dawn to dusk for most of his life.
Already in a better frame of mind, Marlee struck out for the cabin. She'd forgotten the rustic charm of the knotty pine walls and cedar plank floors. Mick hadn't been kidding. The cabin was basic, all right, boasting only the bare essentials. But Marlee didn't want a lot of memories hanging around. It was better to leave them with Rose, who'd made one room of her home into a shrine for her husband, and a second for Cole.
Time passed as she unpacked. Before she knew it, two hours had disappeared. Now the cabin had a few personal touches, making it hers and Jo Beth's. Collecting toys for her daughter, Marlee put them in a tote. Together she and Jo Beth wandered back to the main house.
Pappy appeared to be engrossed in another program, so Marlee set Jo Beth up near the couch, and emptied the tote onto a worn braided rug.
"Do they have a dining room, Mama? I'm hungry," Jo Beth said suddenly.
"Me, too," growled Pappy Jack. "I hope you can cook, girl." Shutting off the TV, he leveled a hopeful glance at Marlee.
Since they'd come in, he'd been rocking contentedly in a scarred rocker Marlee knew had belonged to his dad. She remembered every square inch of this house, while Jo Beth had only ever lived in Rose Stein's decorator-designed show home. What a contrast.
"Pappy, I wish I could say I was a great cook. I picked up some tips from my mother-in-law, but whenever I was at the house, it...just seemed easier to let her cook. It was, after all, her home."
"Maybe you shoulda brought her. Mick says I put stuff on to cook, then go off and let it burn. Hell, he's a fine one to talk. Half the time he gets to tinkering with engines and can't remember it's time to eat."
Jo Beth looked up from arranging her Polly Pocket hairdresser and fashion model sets. "Mama, that man said a bad word."
Marlee had Rose Stein to thank for Jo Beth's prissy attitude, too. The woman had been married to an admiral, but even before his passing she'd insisted the profanity prevalent among military personnel not invade her home. Cole rarely slipped. Marlee often did and got taken to task by Rose. Jo Beth mimicked her grandmother.
Rather than take issue now, Marlee redirected the conversation to what she should fix for supper. Another difference for her daughter—in Rose's home they dined.
But she needed to shut off her mind. Preparing a meal seemed a good outlet. She found steak thawing in the fridge, and fresh corn in the vegetable keeper. There were baking potatoes in a bin that had always been in the pantry. Just as she patted herself on the back for remembering, the wall phone rang.
"That's the business line," Pappy said, glancing up. "Mick says taking orders is gonna be your job. You might as well answer it and get your feet wet, twin."
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Former Navy pilot Marlee Stein leaves San Diego with her young daughter Jo Beth to start fresh in her hometown, Whitepine, Montana. She hopes the change of scenery and her family being there will help Jo Beth adjust to the loss of her father Cole who died at thirty six years old from lymphatic cancer. In Big Sky Country, Marlee plans to help her brother run the family's charter air service, Cloud Chasers and mercy missions for Angel Fleet.---------------- To her shock and feeling a bit guilty, Jo Beth finds herself attracted to park ranger Wylie Ames. He reciprocates, but he too wants no relationships at this time as he raises his son Dean. However their respective children ignore the adult concerns and become close friends. As the single parents fall in love, Dean is diagnosed with cancer making life difficult for his father, but also disturbs his best friend and her mother, still grieving their loss.--------------------- ANGELS OF THE BIG SKY is a heartwrenching tale that stars a fascinating female who is unsure that love is strong enough to deal with a second cancer victim of someone who means so much to her. Marlee makes the tale seem so real as she loves father and son, but struggles with coping with the death threatening illness after she and he daughter watched Cole fade away. Her fears include how Jo Beth copes. Readers will appreciate Roz Denny Fox¿s well written realistic family drama.----------- Harriet Klausner
Former Navy pilot Marlee Stein leaves San Diego with her young daughter Jo Beth to start fresh in her hometown, Whitepine, Montana. She hopes the change of scenery and her family being there will help Jo Beth adjust to the loss of her father Cole who died at thirty six years old from lymphatic cancer. In Big Sky Country, Marlee plans to help her brother run the family's charter air service, Cloud Chasers and mercy missions for Angel Fleet.------------- To her shock and feeling a bit guilty, Jo Beth finds herself attracted to park ranger Wylie Ames. He reciprocates, but he too wants no relationships at this time as he raises his son Dean. However their respective children ignore the adult concerns and become close friends. As the single parents fall in love, Dean is diagnosed with cancer making life difficult for his father, but also disturbs his best friend and her mother, still grieving their loss.--------------------- ANGELS OF THE BIG SKY is a heartwrenching tale that stars a fascinating female who is unsure that love is strong enough to deal with a second cancer victim of someone who means so much to her. Marlee makes the tale seem so real as she loves father and son, but struggles with coping with the death threatening illness after she and he daughter watched Cole fade away. Her fears include how Jo Beth copes. Readers will appreciate Roz Denny Fox¿s well written realistic family drama.------------------ Harriet Klausner