Jen Fox won't let anyone stand in her way of joining the first flight expedition to the North Pole. Even if the person trying to take her seat is the dashing world-famous stunt pilot Dan Wagner. Being on that flight crew would fulfill her father's last wish for her. And Dan should know better than to unseat the dressmaker's determined daughter.
When Dan arrives in Michigan, he's intrigued by the offer to fly over the North Pole. He needs the money, even if it means taking the spot from the drivenand attractiveMiss Fox. Yet their strictly business relationship hits turbulence when they realize they both wish for something more personal
The Dressmaker's Daughters: Pursuing their dreams a stitch at a time
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Jen Fox had to pass the test this time. She had to.
She nervously tapped the end of her pencil on the ta-bletop, drawing a glare from the flight instructor who was scoring her written examination. Already the instructor's red pencil had scratched the paper two times. Two more marked incorrect and Jen would fail for the thirdand finaltime.
"Perhaps you should take a walk," suggested Darcy Hunter, who in addition to serving as proctor was also Jen's instructor and mentor. "Go home for lunch, check on the dress shop or visit one of your sisters. Surely there is something you can do."
Jen glanced out the window of Darcy's dining room. Brilliant winter sun sparkled off last night's snowfall. Despite a cutting breeze that whirled the powder into tiny white cyclones, it would make a fine day for ice-skating or snowshoeing. With her entire future in the balance, Jen had no taste for sport, and she couldn't stomach lunch or casual visits. That left the dress shop. She glanced at her trousers and flannel shirt. Dressed like this, she would not project the proper image at the family business. Her older sister would shoo her away.
"No, thank you." Jen set the pencil in the middle of the table and knit her fingers together so she wouldn't tap them on the tabletop. Deep breath in. Blow it out. Still the nerves wouldn't settle. "I'll wait."
Darcy didn't look pleased, but she returned to scoring Jen's examination.
Jen puffed out her breath, lifting the bangs of her cropped hair. "I'm going to pass the test this time. I spent hours and hours studying. I could do the calculations in my sleep."
"Good," Darcy murmured. "Then there's no reason to be anxious."
Still, Jen's stomach tumbled over and over. She had arrived at eight o'clock sharp this morning and spent the next three and a half hours working through the problems. The mathematics in the navigation section gave her fits. She could figure out anything mechanical as long as the machine was in front of her, but angles and vectors and calculations drove her crazy.
Darcy cleared her throat and pointed at Jen's feet. "Quiet would be helpful."
"Oh." She must have been tapping her toe, which was one of her bad habits. She tucked the offensive foot under her chair. "I'm sorry. It won't happen again."
"Good." Darcy resumed scoring at the top of the sheet.
"I think you already did that question," Jen pointed out. At Darcy's glare, she added, "It looked like you were farther down the page."
Darcy sighed. "Why don't you head home? I'll bring the score over when I'm finished."
"I don't think I can wait that long." Jen clenched her hands until her knuckles turned white.
"Then I'll telephone the dress shop. Please. You're making me edgy."
Jen bit her lip. "I'm sorry. It's just that everything depends on passing this test."
Everything was really just one personDaddy. Jen squeezed her eyes shut. His passing last October had sent her into what aviators called a stall, when the airplane stopped dead in the air. Despite a weak heart, he had survived so many scares that she'd assumed he would continue to rebound. Not that time. When she'd walked into his room and seen him, she'd known he was gone.
Flying had been their dream. They'd talked about it for ages, since they first saw Darcy take to the air over Pearlman. In that moment Jen had seen the future she wanted. Unlike her sisters, she had no taste for dresses or sewing. Daddy recognized that and encouraged her to fly. But then his health had deteriorated, and her savings went toward his care. She'd told herself that she'd take lessons when he got better, but he never did.
Now she owed it to his memory to succeed. With Darcy and her husband, Jack, planning a record flight over the North Pole, she had to get her license now or miss out on the chance to put her father's name into history as her inspiration. Twice already, she'd failed the navigation section. Time was running out.
She rolled the pencil back and forth against the table-top. Its faceted surface massaged her stiff fingers.
Rrrrrrep, rrrrrep, rrrrrep. The rasping sound released tension.
Mother had given her the money for this final attempt, but there would be no more. She wanted Jen to pursue a "reasonable" career like nursing, which could be learned without charge at a hospital school.
Rrrrrep, rrrrrep, rrrrep.
Nursing? Jen couldn't picture herself in the stiff white cap and uniform.
She bore down on the pencil. Rrrrrrep.
Darcy held out her hand. "Give me the pencil."
"I'm sorry." Jen handed it to her. "I guess I am nervous."
Darcy sighed. "Look, Jen, this is going to take a while. I have to check all your calculations. It could easily take me as long to score the test as it took you to complete it. I need complete silence in order to concentrate. Go home. Go to the dress shop. Go anywhere, but let me finish in peace."
"But you don't understand. If I don't pass this time " She couldn't bring herself to finish the thought aloud.
"It's all right." Darcy clasped Jen's hand. "If you fall short, you can always take the test again."
Except that she couldn't. Time and money had run out.
Darcy must have noticed Jen's stricken expression, for she gave her what was meant to be a reassuring smile. "Trust me. You will be fine, but right now your presence is making it difficult to complete the scoring."
"All right. I'll go." Jen scooted back the chair and decided to ask the only thing that mattered. "If I do pass, will I have a chance at the expedition? Providing I complete the flight training and get my license, of course."
Darcy returned a tight smile. "As you know, that's Jack's decision." Her husband headed the expedition.
"But he'll consider me, won't he? He does know I'm studying for my license."
"Yes, he does." A wistful look crossed Darcy's face. "He still needs a navigator to replace me."
Darcy had taken herself out of the cockpit once she learned she was with child. That open spot was Jen's best hope, but navigation was her most troublesome area.
Would Jack accept someone who had failed that section of the test twice?
Darcy leaned toward her. "You might want to remind Jack of that need while I finish scoring your exam. You can find him at the flight school."
Darcy must be very sure Jen was going pass in order to make that suggestion. Before she could find another error, Jen hurried out into the bitter cold afternoon.
The flight school office was as frigid as an icehouse and just as quiet. Dan Wagner set his Stetson on the battered oak table and took a seat. Across from him sat Jack Hunter, owner of the school, and Hendrick Simmons, owner of the aeromotor factory that he'd read about in one of his aviation magazines. If the article was right, they had an engine that would win him the airmail contract and let him leave stunt flying forever.
After introductions, Dan drove straight to why he'd come across the country in this coldest of months. "I'm looking for an engine that'll run reliably at temperatures well below freezing."
He had already told Simmons that when he visited the factory this morning. Instead of answering, Simmons had brought him to the flight school to talk to Jack Hunter. That name was vaguely familiar, but Dan couldn't quite place the man. Why Simmons insisted on this meeting was beyond his comprehension. Either he had an engine that met the specifications or he didn't. End of story. Bringing in a third party only muddied the waters in Dan's opinion, but Simmons wouldn't back down.
Hunter, a suave sandy-haired man with the look of a first-class aviator, glanced at Simmons before taking the lead. "We've been working on that problem for over a year. Longer, in fact. My wife and I first started puzzling it out after our failed transatlantic attempt. We brought in Hendrick once he had the factory up and running."
Simmons, a man of few words if today was any indication, nodded.
"Transatlantic attempt?" Dan couldn't get past the tidbit that Hunter had glossed over so casually. "I followed all the newspaper reports back in '19, but I don't recall your name. How far did you get?"
Hunter's easy grin told Dan he didn't harbor any regrets. "We never made it to Newfoundland thanks to the icing problems. Solving that is a big part of a successful polar attempt."
"Polar attempt?" Now Dan was truly stunned. In such a small town, he'd never expected to hear the words polar and attempt in the same sentence. He must have misunderstood. "I thought the navy scrapped their dirigible expedition. Is it back on?" He looked from Hunter to Simmons. If they were making the engines for some as yet unannounced naval expedition, then there was big backing behind Simmons Aeromotor. This was exactly what Dan was looking for. "Or are you supplying engines to Amundsen?" It seemed a far stretch for a company in a tiny American town to send motors to the Norwegian explorer, but he supposed it was possible.
"Nope." Hunter grinned. "We're not helping any other expedition. We're competing."
Dan's jaw dropped at the audacious statement. "You?
Attempt to fly to the North Pole?" He raked a hand through his wavy hair. "That takes a lot of logistics and some mighty big funding."
"That it does."
Apparently the man had a lot more backing than Dan had figured. "Who is on your flight crew?" He looked at Simmons. "Do you fly?"
Simmons shook his head violently.
Hunter laughed. "Hendrick's no aviator. My wife planned to come along."
"Your wife?" Dan sat back in shock. Many women flew. Some, like the Stinson sisters or Ruth Law, had done so with unquestioned expertise. Still, a polar attempt was different. Dangerous. Deadly. "You'd risk your wife's life?"
"I wouldn't have had a choice. This was her dream." Hunter's expression softened. "But she pulled herself off the expedition. We're expecting a baby."
"Congratulations," Dan said automatically. "She's a smart woman." He shuddered at the memory of the accident that had ended his season. If a baby had been involved, he wouldn't have been able to live with himself. As it was, he couldn't shake the taste and smell of death. "Some people don't know when to stay on the ground."
Hunter gave him an odd look. "Enough about our plans. Hendrick tells me you want to run in some pretty tough conditions."
The change of topic had to be deliberate. Hunter had mentioned their plans to impress him, not interest him. Fair enough. Dan had plans of his own. "Montana gets bitter in the winter. Snow, wind, blizzards. The airmail route I'm aiming to bid on goes clear to the border. Some of these folks are isolated. Receiving and sending mail would be a godsend. I could even bring in a few supplies. Medicine, food, necessities," Dan ticked off an impressive list. "This isn't just an airmail contract. This is a lifeline for those folks. I need a more reliable motor than what I have now."
The next hour was absorbed by a discussion of Dan's current plane, a modified Curtiss Jenny, and the motor's limitations. Neither Simmons nor Hunter seemed to recognize him. He'd wanted it that way to keep prices down. Most men figured Daring Dan Wagner, headliner on the air-show circuit, had barrels of money. He didn't. His earnings went to keeping the family ranch out of the bank's hands. Every year seemed to bring a new crisis that tapped his funds. This year had been quietexcept for his accidentand he aimed to keep it that way. Daring Dan had made his last death drop.
"I assume you've had problems?" Hunter asked.
"The motor works great in the heat," Dan said, "but I have fits keeping it going in cold weather. I'm hoping your engine will solve the icing problem."
"We're working on it," Simmons said.
That did not sound good. "Are you close? The bids are due by the end of next month."
"We plan to make the next test run as soon as the winds die down," Hunter chimed in. "Could be tomorrow if the forecast is right."
"I'd like to see that flight," Dan said. "Your engine could give me the edge I need to land the contract."
"Fine with me, if it's all right with Hendrick."
Simmons nodded. "We couldn't produce another engine in time for your deadline, but we could get it done in, say, three months."
"That'll have to do." Dan hoped a letter to that effect would sway those making the decision. "First we have to make sure it does the job."
"It will." Simmons seemed confident.
Hunter was less so. "Even if this engine takes care of carburetor icing, how do you plan to combat icing on the wings and fuselage?"
Dan was impressed. Hunter had nailed the next biggest problem right on the head. Wing icing was deadly. Any pilot worth his salt knew it. "You're the one planning a polar attempt. You must have come up with some ideas."
Hunter shook his head. "Weather will be an issue. Too cold, and the engines won't start. Too warm, and moisture ices the plane."
"Then you haven't found a solution."
Dan sensed opportunity. "Surely bright minds like ours can come up with something."
Simmons looked skeptical. "How? There's not a material out there that'll prevent icing."
"Not that anyone has discovered yet." Dan looked each man in the eye. "But we have to tryfor both our projects. I'd stake my reputation on the experience gathered in this room." He sat back with a grin, waiting for one of them to admit they'd recognized him. When neither did, he hinted, "I do know something about flying. Perhaps you've heard of me."
Hunter echoed his grin. "I'd be a fool not to know who Dan Wagner is. Altitude, distance and speed records, not to mention the number of downed enemy planes over France. I don't suppose you'd consider"
The office door burst open, drawing Hunter's attention away from his question and toward a tall woman with the brightest hazel eyes Dan had ever seen.
"Jack, I wondered if?" The woman stopped midsen-tence when she noticed Hunter was not alone.
Her flustered confusion sat so awkwardly that Dan suspected she was seldom at a loss for words. She obviously didn't care about public opinion, because she wore men's trousers, a flannel button-down shirt and a ragged mackinaw. Her cracked and scuffed men's leather boots dripped muddy snow on the floor. Her cropped brown hair stuck out in all directions, as if she'd just yanked off a knit cap. She wasn't at all the type of woman that usually attracted him, so the tug in his gut came as a big surprise.
"I'm sorry." She looked around the small room, pausing when she reached him. "I didn't realize you were in a meeting."
Her cheeks, already pleasantly flushed from the cold, got even pinker. Dan was surprised to feel his pulse quicken with the hope that he was the cause of that blush.
She squared her jaw and thrust a hand toward him. "You're new in town. I'm Jen Fox."
He allowed a slight smile. "Pleased to meet you, Miss Fox." He noted her frown. "Not much for formalities, eh? Well then, I'm Wagner. Daniel Wagner." That was a test. Did she recognize Daring Dan by his full name or was she just another gal who swooned over aviators?
She matched his smirk. "Pleased to meet you, Wagner."
He shook her hand. Her grip was as firm as that of a vigorous man. He flexed his fingers when she let go.
She cocked her head to the side, as if assessing him. "Are you a new instructor at the school?"
Hunter snorted and then pretended to cough.
Dan grinned. This gal was definitely not an aviation devotee. She could use a little brushing up on the social graces and a decent wardrobe, but her directness was refreshing. "No, I'm not."
"Oh. You look like a flight instructor."
"I didn't realize flight instructors had a certain look."
"Oh, yes." Her head bobbed emphatically. "They're confident, almost arrogant, as if they think the world revolves around them."
Hunter didn't succeed in covering up his laugh this time.
"Except Jack, of course," she added hastily.