Authors: Kara Braden
Copyright Â© 2014 by Kara Braden
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Cover design by John Kicksee
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Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.
P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567-4410
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To the most important men in my life: my father, who taught me to love words, and my husband, who gave me the chance to fly.
Afternoon sunlight bathed the patient suite with a dull gold hue. Outside, pools of shadow darkened the carefully tended lawn as broken clouds passed before the sun. It was five minutes past four, another gorgeous New England October day. The view did little to soothe Preston's taut-strung nerves. He turned to regard his brother, Ian, who sat stiffly in an armchair beside the hospital bed.
Ian met his gaze with weary resignation. “I know,” he said, his once-theatrical baritone gone thin and quiet. “I look like shit.”
“You do,” Preston admitted.
Ian sighed and let the white hospital blanket fall from his shoulders. “Kind of you to agree.”
Preston caught the edge of the logo on Ian's T-shirt, a pair of crossed blue scimitars, and smiled affectionately. “Nice shirt.”
Ian lowered the blanket enough to reveal
written under the scimitars. “If anyone catches me wearing this old thing, my reputation will be ruined,” he teased, though the humor was bleak.
Preston studied Ian's face, wishing he knew what his brother was thinking. They were close, but this addiction had become a chasm between them. Ian had fifteen more days to go as an inpatient, followed by another three months of planned outpatient counseling. The program had an excellent rate of success, but only if the patient stuck through to the end, which had always been Preston's biggest concern. Ian blamed himself for his addiction. He tended to think he could do everything on his own.
“That's why I'm here: your reputation.”
A hint of the old sharpness came to Ian's blue-gray eyes. “The firm contacted you.”
Preston nodded. “They've reassigned your cases. You're on six months' leaveâ”
“Six months?” Ian sat forward, stubbled jaw set. “I have active cases. Trialsâ”
“And an addiction to painkillers,” Preston interrupted ruthlessly. Guilt twisted through him as Ian sat back, going pale, but the time for gentle handling had passed. Since his postsurgical discharge nine months ago, Ian had sailed in and out of rehab programs, doing the minimum to satisfy the partners at his law firm. Painkillers had given him the false strength to handle a full caseload, but also to put himself back into physical therapy to try and fix the new damage he'd done to his still-healing back.
Ian glared at Preston. “What the hell am I supposed to do for six months?”
“Get clean. Get yourself squared away.”
With a resentful huff, Ian snapped, “Fine. I need to catch up on continuing education credits.”
“You'll have to do distance learning. One of their conditions was that you stay away from Manhattan.”
The sharpness in Ian's eyes gave way to fire; he'd loved Manhattan since the day he'd first toured NYU in his senior year of high school. “
Calmly, Preston reminded him, “You're a criminal lawyer, Ian. If you want to get painkillers, you know people.”
Ian's jaw clenched. “I
in Manhattan. What the
am I supposed to do? Sleep on your damned couch?”
“You think I want you on my couch? Bad enough I have Ray crashing there between missions.” Preston shook his head, hiding his horror at the thought of putting his brother and his business partner in the same room for more than an hour. “I have another plan.”
Ian huffed and pushed up out of his armchair, abandoning the blanket. He steadied himself with a hand on the back of the chair and then walked to the window. His back was noticeably stiff, but once he had his balance, his steps were smooth. “If it's a round-the-world trip on your boat, you can forget it. I just got through withdrawal. I've had enough nausea to last a lifetime without seasickness.”
Even before the law firm's partners had made their request that Ian stay away from the temptations of Manhattan, Preston had been thinking about how best to help his brother. Ian was both brilliant and arrogant. He'd pounce on any hint of weakness, which made rehabâespecially group therapyâall but worthless. And while he had the willpower to avoid drugs for recreation, he was too good at justifying one more pill to get him through a tough case, never realizing that all those “one mores” added up to an addiction that would destroy his life.
Ian needed time to heal, to learn how not to push himself. He needed someone who could win, and hold, his respect. And after days of thinking about it, only one name came to Preston's mind, the single person who might be able to stand firm against one of Manhattan's most promising criminal defense lawyers.
Preston smiled reassuringly. “I promise, you'll be nowhere near the ocean.”
For long, heavy seconds, Ian studied Preston's face. Then he closed his eyes and turned his face to the sun. “All right,” he finally agreed, looking back at Preston. “Make whatever arrangements you need. I'll tell the staff I'm leaving.”
Cecily Knight walked up the creaking wooden steps and opened the door to the double-wide trailer. Over one shoulder, she carried a large frame backpack filled with groceries and supplies. Her parka was unzipped, despite the chill wind that blew through the mountain town. She'd had years to get used to the cold.
“Mark?” she called, pushing her sunglasses up onto her head.
The back door opened, and the airfield manager, Mark Wallace, grinned at her across the combination office, lobby, and kitchen. “Just finished refueling. You're set to go.”
“Thanks.” Cecily held the door for Chuck, the kid from Pinelake Grocery and Feed, who was carrying a sixty-pound sack of chicken feed. He shifted the bag in his arms and trudged after her, exuding the teenage resentment that came with being required to do any work.
Pinelake Airfield hardly deserved the name. It had a single hundred-foot-wide runway paved with gravel that trailed off into weeds at the edges. Cecily's own aircraft, a blue-and-gray two-seater, was already parked at the end of the runway, puffing exhaust out into the crisp midday air. Overhead, the steel blue sky seemed to stretch into infinity.
Mark fell in beside Cecily, saying, “I did a full check on the engines, changed out the fluids, all that. You're ready for winter.”
“I appreciate it. Put it on my card?”
She nodded as she swung her heavy pack off her shoulders. “Toss the feed in the passenger seat,” she told Chuck as they reached the little aircraft. He nodded and jogged around to the other side while she opened the cargo hatch. She stowed the frame pack behind her seat, keeping an eye on Chuck as he strapped the sack securely in place.
“Think you'll make it back down before winter really sets in?” Mark asked.
Cecily shrugged. “Might.”
“If not, see you next spring.” Mark gave her a friendly smile. “You take care of yourself.”
Cecily returned the smile and opened the cockpit door. She leaned across to pass Chuck a five-dollar bill and then climbed into her seat. “Thanks, Chuck.”
“See ya, Miss Knight,” he answered, shoving the five into his pocket and slamming the door.
She put on her headset, adjusted her sunglasses, and keyed the mic. “Charlie Foxtrot X-ray Lima Niner requesting permission for takeoff.”
Mark took the radio from his belt and waved to her as he led Chuck off the runway. “All clear, Charlie Lima Niner. See you around.”
In ten minutes, she was up in the sky. She'd never meant to be a pilot, but she'd never meant to be a lot of things. By now, she was supposed to be a major in the Corps or maybe dead in the desertânot living in the backwoods of Canada in a place so remote that she needed a plane or snowmobile to reach the nearest grocery store.
The radio crackled to life, startling her. “Charlie Foxtrot X-ray Lima Niner, this is Pinelake tower, over,” Mark said.
Baffled, she toggled the mic. “Pinelake, this is Charlie Lima Niner. What's up, Mark?”
“Can you swing back around? Got a phone call for you. The guy says he'll hold to talk to you.”
“Seriously?” She glanced out at the ridge of pine trees that hid the blue ribbon that was her highway home, upriver of Pinelake. The only thing she could imagine was that the Veterans Administration needed to get hold of herâpossibly some issue with her disability paymentsâbut that sort of thing could be handled through the mail. “What the hell?”
“Uh, says to tell you it's Samaritan?” Mark said uncertainly.
Cecily's hands clenched the controls. Her mouth went dry as she remembered smoke and gunfire before the flashbangs had rendered her temporarily blind and deaf. The first thing she'd seen when her vision cleared was a silvery badge, not from a nation but from a corporation. Two blue scimitars.
Numbly, Cecily answered, “Roger, Pinelake. Charlie Lima Niner turning back to the runway. Request clearance for priority landing.”
“Pinelake acknowledges. Charlie Lima Niner, you are cleared to land. Drive safely, Cecily.”
“Out.” She keyed off the mic and took deep breaths as she eased the plane around. She circled wide and studied the brilliant, endless blue sky, so pale and different from the sky in her nightmares. Only when her hands were rock-steady did she turn fully and begin the descent back to Pinelake.
Five hours on a plane, even in the luxury of a first-class seat with Internet access and personal service, was a living hell for Ian. Despite a year and a half of surgery and physical therapy, his back still hurt if he sat still for more than an hour. He'd walked up and down the aisle as much as the stewards would permit, though eventually they'd asked him to sit down and please get out of the way of the other passengers.
His spine felt like it was on fire. He washed down two more ibuprofen with a Coke, wishing he dared order something stronger. Every time he closed his eyes, though, he remembered the hell of getting off Percocet. While he'd never had problems with after-dinner drinks or going to the bar on weekends, he was terrified of replacing one addiction with another.
right, damn him
. Ian was in no condition to be anywhere but rehab or therapy.
It had taken Preston two days to make all the arrangements. Somehow, Ian survived the flight to Calgary International Airport, where he went through customs with a delightful lack of issues. From Calgary, he took a sixteen-passenger jet to the ominously named Little Prairie Airport, which was hardly an airport at all. It was a single-story terminal with no jet bridges. Instead, passengers disembarked via a wheeled staircase, which presented an interminable challenge to Ian's back after spending the whole day in the air.
When booking the flights, Preston had delicately asked if Ian wanted to be listed as a special-needs passenger so he could have access to a wheelchair. Proudly, Ian had refused, and now he was paying the price. The terminal couldn't have been more than a hundred yards away, but it felt like miles. Delaying, he put down his carry-on suitcase, eased the laptop bag off his shoulder, and flexed his back until the pain made him wince. Ibuprofen wouldn't help. He knew he needed something stronger, but he had nothing.
As he waited for his bags to be off-loaded, he huddled into his wool overcoat and looked around with growing horror at the thought of being trapped here. The air traffic control tower was three stories high, little more than a room perched atop a cement post. There were two runways and one L-shaped concrete building with small windows.
The airport wasn't fenced off, though the nearby cows were. Beyond the field, he could see a distant cluster of small buildings. There wasn't a single structure taller than the control tower. And this
He had more baggage than any of the other three passengers: a carry-on suitcase, his laptop bag, a garment bag, and a larger wheeled suitcase. Preston had told him to pack for an extended stay. Ian had envisioned Switzerland and had, in fact, spent three days researching the various ski resorts he might want to visit. Just because he'd injured his back didn't mean he couldn't take advantage of other amenities.
Now, seeing the grim reality of his future, he decided he'd have to find a way to get back to the East Coast as soon as possible. He needed to have a long talk with Preston about his ideas for recuperation.
As he stood on the tarmac, wondering how to handle all of his luggage, a handy airport steward ran over. At least, Ian assumed he was a steward. No one would willingly wear that much navy blue polyester unless it was a uniform.
The steward consulted a rumpled sticky note taken from his pocket. “Mr. Fairchild?”
Glad of the assistance, Ian picked up his laptop bag. “Yes. If you can take that”âhe waved at the carry-onâ“I'd appreciate it.”
Obligingly, the steward picked up the bag. “I've got your luggage ready.”
“Thank you.” Ian nodded and started toward the concrete bunker that passed for a local airport, anticipating the warmth and a hot cup of coffee, if there was any to be found.
The steward ran a couple of steps to catch up. “Uh, your plane's here, if you want to go right to it.”
Ian turned and saw him pointing toward the sixteen-seater commuter jet. “I just
on that plane,” he said, wondering if he'd been meant to stay aboard. But no, his ticket had listed Little Prairie as his destination. From here, he was supposed to be picked up for the last leg of the trip.
“Not that one.
one,” the steward clarified, ducking to point under the front end of the jet.
Frowning, Ian took a few stepsâhe didn't think his back could handle bending overâand spotted a little toy plane a short distance away. It was gray on top and blue underneath, with C-FXL9 painted in black on the tail. It wasn't
miniature, but it was definitely close. How the hell was he supposed to actually sit in that thing, with his back? Was it even
“That toy isn't a plane,” he objected.
“Oh, sure it is. I'll just grab your other bags,” the steward said and jogged off to the stack of luggage beneath the commuter jet, leaving Ian to slowly cross the tarmac. He circled the nose of the commuter plane and got his first good look at the plane and the person leaning against one wing.
The person proved to be a woman with a shock of fire-red hair pulled back into a short, tight ponytail. Her skin was flushed from the cold, with a light dusting of freckles over her nose and cheekbones. She wore a battered leather jacket, faded blue jeans that hugged her hips, and work boots. She turned and looked in his direction, dark sunglasses obscuring her eyes.
She was ruggedly attractive, far from the usual type who would've caught Ian's eye, and he wondered if she was his unknown hostess, Cecily Knight. If so, his exile might have just become a lot more interesting. Then again, Ian never let first impressions fool him. Whoever this woman was, she chose to live
, which could well indicate some deep flaw in her. Beyond the attractive facade, she was probably boring or antisocial, and Ian had high expectations even for one-night stands.
The steward reached the plane well ahead of Ian. Over the sound of rattling suitcase wheels, he shouted, “That's your passenger, captain!” He pointed back at Ian.
“To be a proper captain, one must have a proper airplane,” Ian muttered under his breath, pushing himself to catch up.
“How much luggage did you bring?” the so-called “captain” asked sharply, looking Ian up and down before turning her attention to the luggage the steward had piled beside the plane.
“I have absolutely no intention of taxing that
cargo capacity with anything I value more than my socks,” Ian countered.
Instead of getting angry, the captain barked out a laugh. “Suit yourself,” she invited, fishing around in her jeans pocket for a moment. She pulled out a roll of brightly colored money, peeled off a blue bill, and handed it over to the steward.
“Is this thing even built to carry a passenger?” Ian asked with growing apprehension. He was trapped in the middle of nowhere, but even that was better than risking his life in a glorified toy plane.
The captain grinned and pulled open two doors on the side of the plane. Through the front one, Ian could see a seat; the back appeared to be a cargo compartment. “Guess we'll find out. Hurry up and stow your gear. It's almost four hundred miles back home, give or take. You probably don't want to walk.”
,” he protested.
She gave another short laugh and climbed up into the little aircraft. Her jacket rode up enough to show a black pistol holstered at her right hip. Ian stared. Having grown up in a military family, Ian was no stranger to guns but wondered what she needed it for. Out here, the only threats were boredom, snow, and bears.
“I don't think this'll all fit,” the steward told him, looking between the little cargo compartment and the suitcases. The whole plane rocked as the captain slammed her door closed.
Ian sighed and turned to regard his belongings critically. He'd gone from the clinic straight to the airport, so he'd asked his assistant to pack his bags. He had specified that he'd be gone at least three months, possibly as many as six, and that he'd be staying with “a friend,” which was all Preston had told him. That might have been a tactical error, as Preston would say.
“Right. Carry-on first, then garment bag,” he told the steward, who obligingly did as directed. Draped over the carry-on, the garment bag provided a clean surface. Ian knelt down slowly and carefully to unzip his suitcase. He found an array of dress shirts, ties, socks, and underwear, along with a full kit of toiletries.
“Just pile everything on top,” he finally said, getting back to his feet. He picked up his laptop bag.
“The suitcase won't fit, though.”
“Keep it.” Ian took the money clip from his pocket and passed the steward an American twenty-dollar bill for the extra trouble.
Ian walked around to the other side of the plane and pulled open the door. He had to brace himself to climb up into the passenger seat. He couldn't quite hide his grunt of effort as his back twinged in protest. The laptop bag barely fit into the space by his feet.
The captain looked at him but then twisted around to watch the steward start shoveling armloads of Ian's clothing out of the suitcase and into the cargo compartment. Dark red-brown eyebrows shot up over her sunglasses.
Then she laughed. “Good call,” she said and turned to the instrument panel, grinning.
Twenty minutes later they were over the trees and away from civilization. Cecily was glad her passenger seemed content to stay quiet, though he obviously wasn't admiring the view. Once they leveled off to cruising altitude, he took a cell phone out of his overcoat and started pressing buttons.
Cecily frowned as she glanced over, only then realizing she hadn't seen another jacket in the luggage piled in back. The overcoat was nice for city wear, but he'd need something much warmer if he were going to make it through the winter. It was already snowy up at Pinelake.
“Fairchild said you're stayingâ”
Fairchild. Ian Fairchild,” he interrupted. He turned and gave her a sharp, narrow-eyed look through his polarized designer sunglasses. Behind them, she could just make out eyes that were either blue or gray. “Consider it a reminder that you have yet to introduce yourself.”
Amused, she answered, “Cecily Knight. The
Fairchild said you were staying through the end of the year.”
Ian's answer was a huff through flared nostrils as he turned his attention back to his cell phone. “Perhaps. This may not work out as my brother had planned.”
The thought of having an outsider in her space made her chest go tight, but she took a deep breath and concentrated on the sensitive flight controls. In fact, she realized that Ian was going to be the first person, other than Mags, to see the inside of her house since she'd had it built. She owed Preston Fairchild her life, and if it took an unwanted houseguest to clear that debt, so be it.
She snuck a look at her passenger, glad her sunglasses were the conventional type, with lenses that stayed dark. It didn't help that the houseguest in question was absolutely gorgeous, just over six feet tall and lithe, with dark blond hair that framed his cheekbones and brushed over one eye. He kept lifting a gloved hand to push it back, but the hair fell right back down to touch his sunglasses. She had the mad urge to move one hand from the controls, strip off her glove, and touch the strands.
Instead, she turned away to concentrate on flying. The silence was surprisingly comfortable, broken only near the end of the first leg, when she keyed the mic. “Pinelake tower, this is Charlie Foxtrot X-ray Lima Niner, requesting weather report and landing clearance to refuel.”
“Charlie Lima Niner, this is Pinelake tower. Weather is cloudy with light snow, decent visibility. You are clear to land whenever you like. How was Little Prairie? Over.”
“The usual, Mark. Glad to be home. Should be wheels-down in twenty, with a passenger.”
“I'll put up the coffee, Cecily. Pinelake tower out.”
She glanced over at Ian, who was staring at her so intently that she asked, “Something wrong?”
“Where exactly are we going?” he asked in that deep baritone of his. With a voice like that, she'd be content to listen to him read the phone book.
“Pinelake,” she answered, reminding herself that she was supposed to be piloting, not ogling her passenger. “The house is another forty minutes' flying time north of the airfield.”
home. Don't you have a car?”
She laughed and shook her head. “No roads up to my property. You can take a boat, if the draft is shallow enough, but I don't enjoy rowing.” She resisted the urge to rub her shoulder and kept her hands on the controls instead. “The only other option is a quad or snowmobile.”
Instead of answering, he turned his attention back to his cell phone. “I'm not going to get any signal out here, am I?”
“Not out here.”
If Little Prairie had been tiny, Pinelake was surreal. The lake itself was pretty enough, surrounded by deep green pine trees dusted with snow. A small cluster of buildings stretched into the trees away from where a dock jutted out into the lake. It took seconds to follow a gravel road through the town, if it could be called that, to the airfield.
The runway was nothing but a gravel strip next to a flimsy-looking mobile home. “Where's the tower?” Ian asked.
Cecily laughed briefly. “No tower here, unless you count hunting stands.”
After a landing that jolted every bone in Ian's body, she circled the plane at the end of the runway and drove toward an open-sided hangar. Three small planes and a helicopter were parked underneath. All four looked sturdier than her aircraft, and he wondered what it would cost to buy one for the duration of his stay. Not that he knew how to fly.