Authors: Lindsay McKenna
The last thing Megan Roberts needed was an affair with a jet jockey. For Megan, coming home to Edwards Air Force Base meant facing up to her childhood with a risk-taking father an an alcoholic mother, and finding her own path in a world of handsome test pilots, Officer Club groupies, and Air Force wives. Yet there was something about the tall, confident fighter in cowboy boots and jeans that said he was a breed apart. Coming up the hard way, honing his flying skills, and pushing himself to his limits, Sam Holt was fighting a bitter rivalry and desperately trying to escape the memory of a tragedy. When Sam urged Megan to follow her heart’s instincts, a dangerous intrigue of jealousy and scandal started to swirl about them like a hot desert storm, threatening his career and her peace of mind. But Megan knew she was facing her best chance for the most daring act of all—to love…
To the wives and children of military families everywhere, whose silent contribution is never mentioned, much less given ribbons or medals for sacrifice and grit—but certainly deserve them.
Doug Benefield, Air Force and civilian test pilot, deceased. A wonderful friend whom I think of often. You gave the ultimate sacrifice.
Lancaster, California, 1989
Where the hell was Captain Curt Merrill? Sam Holt stood there, anxiously searching the gathering crowd of thousands who anticipated the start of the balloon rally shortly. Twisting a look across his shoulder, Sam watched his seasoned crew preparing his rainbow-colored balloon for flight. If Curt didn’t show up, he’d have to forfeit the race.
That was something he didn’t want to do. Restlessly, his gaze moved across the bone-colored Mojave Desert that surrounded the small town of Lancaster, California. Thirty miles away was Edwards Air Force Base, his home. His life. Throwing his hands on his hips in a typical Air Force pilot gesture, Sam wondered if his friend of five years was having family problems—again—and if that was why he was running late.
The restive crowd reminded Sam of bright-hued birds. The rally was to raise money for an orphanage down in Los Angeles, but Sam ruefully admitted he’d fly on any excuse and in anything just to fly—whether it had wings or not. When he wasn’t testing the latest in combat jets, he was drifting through the sky in his balloon. Coming back to earth was always a downer. Lifting his chin, he gazed up at the dawn sky, the sun having just edged over the horizon, sending a pale pink wash of color across the desert.
Nostrils flaring, he automatically picked up the dryness of the desert, the smell of propane used to power the balloons and a hint of flowery perfume worn by someone in the crowd. Where was Curt? Looking at his watch, he searched for him with narrowed intensity. Perhaps Becky Merrill was feeling under the weather again was all he could surmise. Or maybe it was Curl’s six-year-old daughter, Patty, who had fallen suddenly sick?
There were only five minutes left until the gun would sound to start the race. Sam had to have the mandatory passenger on board. He wasn’t about to forfeit the race. No way. Swiveling to the left, Sam saw his target. Surrounding him were twenty hot air balloons being readied for flight. The constant, sporadic blasts of propane-fed flames shooting heat into the behemoths continued to shatter the silence.
All his focus centered on the red-haired woman with a camera in hand, as she moved unobtrusively among the crowd of nearly five thousand spectators who had come to view the race. A grin curved the corners of his mouth as he surveyed her. Behind him, his crew chief called to him, telling him they were ready for him to board. Sam lifted his hand in acknowledgement. First, he had to capture his unsuspecting passenger. He was going to abduct her, and take her skyward with him.
The thought was provocative, and Holt savored the idea. It was crazy, but, why not? Over at Edwards the pilots and enlisted crew chiefs had always accused him of being just that. Damn, but she was young and pretty. And alone. No man around her, no children in evidence and no ring on her left hand. Outstanding.
“Hey, Clark,” he called to the
Los Angeles Times
photographer who was there to record the race for the annual charity event, “you want something different for your paper on this race? A new angle?” No newspaper reporter or photographer could resist words like new and different.
Clark’s eyes gleamed. He had three cameras hanging around his neck. He grabbed a Yashica 35 mm, getting it ready. “Yeah.”
“Follow me and stand by for action.” Holt spun on his heel, aiming himself through the crowd of onlookers.
This was working out just fine, he thought with a grin, and zeroed in on his red-haired target. She was slender, wearing an apricot sweater, a white silk scarf and white slacks. Couldn’t be more than twenty-five. As he drew closer, Sam liked the coverlet of freckles across her porcelain skin and flushed cheeks. It was her large, vivid green eyes that made his heart begin a hard, unrelenting beat. Her nose was thin, finely sculpted, but it was her parted lips, sensual and full, that made his pulse jag erratically.
Holt laughed at himself. Suddenly, he was nervous. Him! At twenty-nine, he knew how to get a lady’s attention. But abduction of a stranger was going to be a little more tricky. He’d always been creative about chasing and capturing the woman he wanted. Her long, unruly red hair tumbled across her small shoulders, silky strands curved into thick crescents against her sweater. The wispy bangs across her smooth, unmarred brow emphasized her thickly lashed eyes. Part girl, part woman. The freckles gave her a decided air of a young adventuress just waiting for the next quest to begin so she could take part in it.
Looking across his shoulder, he called to Clark. “Ready?”
Almost running to keep up, the photographer held on to his cameras, trying to keep them from bumping into one another. “Yeah. Hey, what are you up to now, Holt?”
Laughing, he said, “See that red-haired lady standing over there?”
“I’m going to sweep her off her feet and take her up in my balloon. My partner never arrived, and I’m not forfeiting the race. She’ll be my teammate.”
“But—do you know her?” he asked, digging frantically in his shirt pocket for a notebook and pen.
“No, but I will shortly. Stand by, you might get some great shots.”
Of me getting decked,
Sam thought wryly, if she didn’t have a sense of humor and go along with his abduction plans. The delicious curve of her lips, the shining excitement in her eyes, told him instinctively that she would go along with his impromptu plan. His mind whirled with explanations that he could give to persuade her to go along with his crazy idea. Otherwise, she might take a swing at him, or try to squirm out of his arms as he carried her back to the gondola. Red-haired women could turn into screaming, shrieking harpies upon occasion. That was part of their allure, their unpredictability. They reminded him of the jets he flew to the edge of their flight envelopes, while testing their strengths and weaknesses, never knowing their unpredictability until pushed too far.
Megan Roberts sensed excitement, lifted her chin and looked to the left. She saw a man, perhaps in his early thirties, dressed in a worn leather bombardier jacket, light blue shirt with the collar open and jeans, striding directly toward her. His dark blue eyes were intent upon her, and her heart leaped unexpectedly. On his heels was a photographer, running to keep up with him. What was going on?
Vivid impressions struck Megan as he closed the distance between them. He had black hair, military short, a square face and straight nose, and his mouth was pulled into a careless smile of devilry. She looked back into his eyes, and she saw a mixture of amusement and interest. His stride was long and relaxed, his head up, his shoulders thrown back with pride. A tremor of expectation rushed through her. Only she seemed to be aware that something was about to happen. The other people stood watching the balloons that looked like colorful Easter eggs on the ivory desert. She had come to take photos of them for her second grade class.
Megan took a step back as the man approached, watching the photographer anchor himself, raising the camera, getting ready to take pictures. The man gave her a wink, stepped up to her, slid his arms beneath her legs and back and lifted her off the ground.
“Hey!” Megan gasped. She inhaled his clean, subtle masculine scent. “What are you doing?”
“The name’s Sam Holt, Red. Now, don’t struggle.” He turned toward Clark, smiling triumphantly for the camera.
Flashbulbs popped in rapid succession. Her arms had automatically gone around his shoulders. At least she couldn’t take a punch at him that way. “Hang on, I’m abducting you to my gondola.” He grinned at her, thinking how beautiful her large green eyes were at close range. There were flecks of gold in them.
“I—what?” Megan started to struggle. “Put me down!”
“Now, take it easy, Red. You don’t want to embarrass us, do you? That guy’s from the
Los Angeles Times
. This is great news—‘Balloonist kidnaps damsel and takes her to his castle in the clouds.’” He grinned. “Great headline, huh?” She was feather-light, but warm and soft against him.
“Well—” Megan ceased struggling, feeling heat rush to her face. The photographer kept shooting film of them as he carried her. “Balloon? What are you talking about? Is this some kind of publicity stunt?”
“Sure,” Sam lied glibly, approaching the basket. His men had hold of the lines; they were ready to take off. Any moment now, the gun would sound and the race would begin. “This is just a stunt to get the public’s attention for the orphanage down in L.A.,” he lied again. “More people will donate money as a result. You don’t want those kids to go hungry, now do you?”
Nonplussed, Megan didn’t know what to do. She saw the woven basket, known as a gondola, coming up. Above them, rising high in the pale dawn sky, was a rainbow-colored balloon above it. “But—I’ve never been up in a balloon! I’m afraid of heights!” Her voice went off-key. “Put me down!”
Laughing, Sam gently placed her in the gondola, leaping into the basket right behind her. “You bet.” The gun went off, signaling the start of the race.
“Trail lines free,” Holt shouted to the men, his hand on the handle to turn on the propane to create the flame and heat needed to lift the balloon off the desert.
Megan gripped the side of the gondola, feeling the balloon lift off beneath the ear-splitting roar of the propane flame. There was a lurch, and then a gentle forward swing.
Without thinking, because she feared heights, she dropped the camera to the wooden deck, gripping the sides of the gondola. Should she try and jump? People were watching, laughing and waving at her, delight written in their expressions. She braced herself, unaccustomed to the movement of the balloon. With a little cry, Megan tensed, afraid she was going to fall out.
“I want out of here!” Her voice was a mixture of anger and stridency.
Sam gave her a pained look. She had turned waxen, the flush to her cheeks gone. Contrite, he tried to soothe away her anger. “Hey, it’s going to be okay. Trust me.”
Fear nudged her anger aside. “Trust you? You had no right to do this,” Megan stammered, shutting her eyes, and feeling suddenly dizzy.
The instant she swayed, Sam moved to her side. “Come here,” he ordered, sliding his arm around her shoulders, bringing her against him. She was shaking. Dammit. He felt like a first-class heel, now. “I’m sorry,” he apologized, “but I needed a partner or I had to forfeit this race. It was for charity….” Dividing his attention between Megan and the wind currents, he watched the other balloons maneuvering. The silk of her hair felt good against his jaw, and she smelled spicy and sweet. “Place your feet apart, it will help steady you.” All around them, balloons were rising like a group of startled butterflies, moving ponderously, flowing in all directions on the invisible air currents. Beneath them, the crowd broke into a swell of cheers. “Wave to the people below,” he told her, hoping to divert her fear. “You’ll make their day.”
“Can’t you get this thing back on the ground?” she whispered, clutching at him, keeping her eyes closed.
“Too late,” Sam said apologetically, feeling guilty because she was genuinely afraid. “Look, you aren’t going to fall out. I’ve been flying balloons for almost ten years and never lost a passenger yet. It’s fun. Slowly open your eyes.”
Hesitantly, Megan pried open her eyes. “Oh, my God…” The ground was falling away, the people becoming mere dots of color on the desert. A light breeze moved around them. She was aware of Holt’s strong, steadying body against hers. “I don’t believe this….”
Laughing gently, Sam studied the other competitors and decided to level off at five hundred feet. Usually, there was a ribbon of air at that elevation. “You’re a good sport,” he reassured her, delighted with her closeness. “Enjoy the view. You’re stuck here with me for at least two hours.”
Heart pounding in her throat, Megan barely looked down. The people were being left behind, the Joshua trees scattered across the Mojave looked tiny. “H-how high are we?”
Checking the altimeter, Sam said, “Five hundred and ten feet.”
Shutting her eyes, Megan took several deep breaths. “This is crazy.” And then she opened her eyes, giving him an accusing stare. “You’re crazy.” The crow’s-feet around his eyes deepened as the balloon swung toward the sun rising in the east.
Sam guided her over to one wall of the gondola and instructed her to hold lightly to the railing. Her knuckles turned white immediately. Worried, he retrieved a thermos of coffee, removed the cup and poured her some, hoping to divert her attention. “Yeah, I’ve been known to do crazy things every once in a while. Here, this will help steady your nerves.”
Gratefully, Megan took the paper cup between her trembling hands. She had a moment to study him. He’d said his name was Sam Holt. Indeed, he had a sense of humor, laugh lines bracketed his mouth and the corners lifted naturally. The amusement in his cobalt eyes helped lessen her dread to a degree. Lancaster sat thirty miles from Edwards. Was he an Air Force officer? He looked like it. Some of her shock was squelched by the fear of that thought. She wanted nothing to do with military men. Not ever again.
“Better?” Sam asked, keeping one hand on the handle and the other around his mug of coffee.
“I don’t know yet.”
“What’s your name?”
“Pretty as your red hair.”
She studied him, shaking her head. “Whatever led you to do this? I mean, why me?”
He shrugged, grinning. “Your hair stood out like a flaming banner in the crowd. The guy who was supposed to fly with me didn’t show up, so I needed a partner in order to qualify for the race. You looked like you courted excitement, so I concocted the whole thing and took advantage of the PR angle for the orphanage kids.”
Some of the tension drained from Megan, but not much. He couldn’t be a pilot. They cared about no one but themselves. This man obviously cared about the orphans, or he wouldn’t have brought his balloon to the race, or thought up this harebrained stunt. Judging from his clean, executive lines and trendy clothes, he was probably a local businessman from Lancaster. “That’s some creative maneuvering, Mr. Holt.”
“Call me Sam.” He extended his hand, holding her smiling green eyes. “And thanks for going along with my idea. I was counting on that.”