Rain pelted the sides of the airplane hangar as Ethan Carlisle loaded the last box of food into the tail of the sturdy Helio
Courier. This bird had been hopping between the seven thousand
Philippine Islands for more than thirty years, and it showed. Ethan
had passed the rigorous training necessary to fly in the mountains
of north central Luzon, but he’d never get a chance to take her up if
the weather didn’t relent.
He slammed the cockpit door shut and walked across the hangar to
look outside. The palm trees lining the airfield sagged from the downpour.
The sky glowed an eerie green.
He knew God wanted him in the Philippines, but if God didn’t taper
this storm, the two weeks he’d set aside to fly supplies to the region’s
remote villages would be a waste.
John, the supervisor for the mission operation out of Bagabag,
walked up behind him and handed him a Styrofoam cup.
“How do you usually celebrate the New Year?” John asked as he
looked out the hangar’s door.
“With chips and salsa and a marathon of board games with a couple
John nodded toward the airfield. “We may be having our own New
Year’s Eve party in the hangar tonight.”
“I won’t last until midnight.”
“Go get some rest.” John pointed to a small lobby at the side of the
hangar. “Everyone’s grounded until this afternoon, maybe tomorrow.”
Ethan took a sip of the muddy coffee. “How long do you think it
“One of the missionaries called in this morning from a village north
of here and said they had clear skies, but the radio’s been down for an
A gust of wind shook the hangar, bending the palms like they were
“Isn’t this supposed to be the dry season?”
“We get storms all year.” John saluted the weather with his cup.
“We’ll pray that it clears up in the next few hours.”
Ethan squinted into the hazy sky and saw something dark move in
the distance. “Is that a plane?”
John took a step forward as the black spot evolved into a Cessna
182. He groaned. “She knows better!”
Ethan watched the single-engine plane turn and dip toward the runway.
“The woman never listens …” John mumbled as he raced outside.
Ethan stepped out under the awning as he watched the Cessna battle
the wind. The plane teetered and shook as it descended and then
bumped twice before it landed on the runway and taxied toward the
hangar. He followed John toward the plane.
The second the propeller blades wound down, the pilot jumped
out. She wore a tan T-shirt under denim overalls, and her honey brown
hair was pulled back in a messy ponytail. The rain streaked dirt down
her forehead and arms.
She pointed back into the front seat. “We’ve got to get her to the
John ran up to her, his hair and jacket soaked. “I told you to stay in
Reauca until this storm blew over.”
Ethan heard a woman scream inside the Cessna, and then he heard
a furious chorus of clucking.
“Dr. Andrews said this woman and her baby will die if she doesn’t
have an emergency C-section.”
The woman screamed again, and Ethan peered into the open door.
A pregnant woman was clutching her abdomen, contorting in pain. And
the tail of the plane was filled with crates of angry chickens.
The pilot glanced into the hangar and then turned toward John.
“Did I mention she’s going to die?”
“Call an ambulance,” John yelled to one of the maintenance workers.
The pilot jumped back inside the Cessna and helped the groaning
woman climb out. A mechanic rushed a wheelchair into the storm, and
the four of them lifted her into it. The mechanic battled the wind as he
pushed her into the hangar and covered her shoulders with a blanket.
Ethan turned back to John.
“I need fuel,” the pilot said.
John stepped between her and the plane. “Oh no, you don’t.”
“And a box of antivenom serum.”
“A cobra bit an eight-year-old boy this morning.”
“And yet you brought a plane full of chickens instead.”
“He was too sick to fly.”
“I’ll try to radio Dr. Andrews and tell him you’ll return when the
She planted both hands on her hips. “The boy won’t make it.”
“I’m worried about you making it.”
“He’s eight, John!”
John looked as if he was about to strangle her.
“It’s only a twenty-minute flight.”
He lowered his voice as he stepped toward her. “These are high
stakes you’re playing.”
“It’s worth the risk.”
John turned and rushed toward the hangar. “Get me the fuel truck!”
Leia pulled a crate of chickens out of the tail, the birds squawking
as rain drenched their feathers. She climbed back into the plane, and
when she emerged with another crate, she glanced down at the first
crate still on the ground and then back at Ethan. “We need to get them
inside before they drown.”
“Got it.” He wrapped his fingers around the thin slats of wood, but
when he picked up the crate, a chicken pecked him, and the box
crashed on the asphalt.
He looked up at Leia, and she rolled her eyes. “You have to pick it
up from bottom.”
He carried the four crates inside the hangar and lined the angry
chickens up against the wall.
A pickup truck with an aluminum tank pulled up beside the plane,
and Leia pulled out the nozzle to start fueling. John walked out into the
rain with a plastic bag, opened the door of the plane, and set it inside.
He nodded toward her. “It’s the serum.”
She planted the nozzle back into the flatbed and rushed into the
hangar, two steps in front of John. Ethan looked out at the driving sheet
of rain and then at the pilot.
“I’ll go with her,” he volunteered to John.
She glared at him as she signed the paperwork to release the
serum. “Who’s this?”
“It’s his first day.” John flung his hands between them. “Leia, meet
Ethan Carlisle. Ethan, this is our rogue pilot, Leia Vaughn.”
Ethan stepped forward and held out his hand. She shook it warily,
and then he followed her out to the plane. When she climbed into the
pilot’s seat, he opened the door to the other side. He was used to the
routine, he’d been nursing second seat since he was twenty-four.
“I’ll fly with you, ”
He hopped into the plane. “In case you need help …”
“I won’t need any help,” Leia insisted.
“… with the kid.”
Apparently she didn’t want to waste time arguing. She turned the
plane as he buckled his seat belt.
Then she took off into the storm, the Cessna shaking and howling
against the wind as they flew out of Bagabag. Ethan clenched the door
handle like it was a parachute cord as they disappeared into the clouds.
“You know where all the mountaintops are, right?” he asked.
“I’ve got a pretty good idea.”
He turned his head to stare at her. “Do you have a death wish?”
“We’ll be fine if we die, but I’m not sure about the boy.”
“It’s why we do this, isn’t it?” The plane broke through a cloud and
into the clear blue. “John’s just blowing smoke. He’s flown through
worse a hundred times when someone called for help.”
“Do you always fly with poultry?” he asked.
“They’re payment for the woman’s surgery.”
His fingers wound tighter around the handle as the plane bounced
in the turbulence. “I hope the surgeon likes eggs.”
“He’ll trade them for something else.”
“Do you think the woman will be okay?”
Leia banked left, flying toward a ridge of imposing mountains. “She
should make it to the hospital in time, but there’s no guarantee.”
Sprawled below them were miles of rigorous jungle, and a river
snaked through the dense mangrove forest. They flew by a waterfall
cascading into a clear pool. Nearby, lime-colored rice terraces stairstepped
up a mountainside.
She pointed toward the water. “It’s the Chico River.”
“Gorgeous.” He released his hold on the handle. “How long have
you been flying over here?”
“I’ve volunteered between Christmas and New Year’s for the past
five years.” Her blue eyes glazed for an instant. “How long are you going
to be here?”
“Two weeks. I just got hired by Ambassador Air, so I’m starting my
new job at the end of the month.”
“Good company.” Leia turned the plane north. “You’re … what?
“Just turned thirty.”
“Someday I’m going to fly with the majors.”
He believed her. “Where do you work now?”
“At Corporate Direct. I fly charters.”
“Out of Denver?”
She glanced over at him. “That’s right.”
“I just moved to Denver.”
They were flying directly toward a mountain.
“Don’t you think you better …” he started, pointing toward the crags.
She buzzed the rocky top, missing the summit by fifty feet. “You
He wiped the sweat off his face. “I prefer to ski on them.”
“Then you’ll love Colorado.”
She pointed toward a mountain in front of them. “That’s where
He leaned forward in his seat but didn’t see an airfield. “Where?”
He squinted until he saw what looked like a thin piece of sandpaper
that had been carved out of the mountainside. Their landing strip. If she
didn’t hit the crude runway just right, they’d plunge down into the valley.
It would probably be days before someone found them.
He started to say something about the shoddy-looking strip, but her
eyes had creased into slits, her gaze boring through the window. She
dropped the flaps as they descended; the plane smacked the runway.
They bumped over the field of rocks, wheels rattling as if they were
skating across marbles, before they screeched to a halt. Ethan opened
his eyes and saw the edge of the runway fifteen feet in front of them.
“It’s a breeze.” She flashed him a confident smile, but he saw her
hands shake. She was blowing a little smoke herself.
She killed the engine as a crowd of natives ran toward the plane.
“Let’s get this medicine to the doctor.”
Ethan released his grip on the door and jumped out. A man with a
safari hat covering most of his blond hair ran up to Leia. Dr. Andrews.
“I knew you’d come back.” When the doctor hugged her, it didn’t
look as if he was going to let go.
Ethan stepped up beside them and cleared his throat. “Excuse me.”
Dr. Andrews released his hold as Leia turned toward him.
Ethan waved his thumb toward the plane. “Isn’t this an emergency?”
Four villagers brought the boy up the hill on a stretcher as Leia
retrieved the box of antivenom from the plane. Ethan lifted the child
and cradled him in his arms like a baby. As the doctor administered the
serum, Ethan prayed softly that God would spare the boy’s life.
Five years later
only a game," Leia muttered as she shoved another quarter into the Golden Wonder and pulled the metal arm. Red and
yellow fruit whirled across three paylines, but she didn’t blink. The display
slowed to a tick. Her body tensed.
This roll was a winner. She could feel it. Time to recover some of
the money she’d lost this afternoon.
The spinning stopped, and a white light flashed across the screen,
two grape clusters, scattered lemons, a couple of cherries, and the
token gold bar. No good. Why couldn’t she beat this thing? One decent
win was all she wanted instead of the measly ten quarters the machine
spit out when it froze on a row of silver bells.
She dropped three more quarters into the slot machine and gritted
her teeth as she spun again.
This was ridiculous. There was no reason for her to get worked up.
Nobody was going to die if she didn’t win. Nothing was going to burn down.
Besides, if she didn’t increase her bet, the maximum payout was only fifty
bucks. The Vicodin she took this morning must be messing with her mind.
Another spin. Another loss.
She groaned. Winning was a matter of principle now. All she
needed was one row of diamonds to recoup the cash she’d lost in the
last hour. If she bet a few more quarters, a row of gold would pay for
her entire ski weekend.
She wouldn’t budge until the Golden Wonder gave her at least a
portion of the money she’d crammed into it. All she wanted was a few
dollars to make up for her time and the torture of sitting inside a musty
casino on a sunny Colorado day.
She wasn’t supposed to be here. She and Julie Kirk were supposed
to be skiing down Copper Mountain’s intense moguls. They’d planned
this long weekend getaway last summer, a girls-only excursion to celebrate
New Year’s Eve.
The first day of their trip was amazing: powder-packed runs, temperatures
hovering around fifty. The only wind a light breeze from the
east. When Julie begged her to stop for a late lunch, they both gobbled
cheeseburgers before racing right back out. They took the last lift up
the mountaintop and skied around the groomers who emerged in full
force at the end of the day.
Thursday had been perfect.
Yesterday was torture.
The morning started out fine. She and Julie left the lodge early,
arriving at the lift twenty minutes before it opened. They were second
in line. Overnight snow flurries had left behind a brilliant white powder,
and the sky was a crisp blue. They rode to the top of a black-diamond
run, and Leia ripped down the bumps with Julie close behind her.
Then it happened. A purple streak startled her two seconds before
the snowboarder cut her off. With no time to stop, she catapulted down
the hill, skis flying in opposite directions. She landed a foot from a pine
tree. With her legs knotted under her like a pretzel, she spat out a
mouthful of snow and lifted her head. The snowboarder had disappeared,
but her right knee seared with fire.
When she tried to sit up, she screamed with pain. Julie yelled to a
ski instructor for help.
The afternoon was a blur, the humiliating stretcher ride down the
mountain, waiting in the long emergency room line while she groaned
with pain, and finally the diagnosis from a doctor who didn’t look old
enough to have a diploma. He explained that she’d fractured her tibial
plateau, the top of the shinbone that joins the knee. He said the
Vicodin would numb her pain until she scheduled an MRI and a visit
with an orthopedist, but no driving for three months. No flying for at
least five months. Happy New Year.
She stuck a fistful of quarters into the slot machine and brushed
her hand over the leg that she’d propped up on a stool.
If only she could stop thinking about her injury. She closed her eyes
as the machine spun, but it was impossible to focus when she lost again.
The career implications of her accident were overwhelming. She
was in the midst of interviewing with Ambassador Air to fly 737s. Her
dream job. She’d raced through the company’s initial interview and the
physical and psychological exams in December. Her simulator test was
scheduled for next week. With Corporate Direct teetering on bankruptcy,
she’d probably be unemployed by the end of the year if she
didn’t find something soon.
Pilots with decades more experience than she had were vying for
jobs with major carriers like Ambassador Air. What would the company
do when she told them she’d fractured her knee? Hiring another pilot
would be a cinch.
She looked down at the immobilizer wrapped around her leg. She’d
asked Doogie Howser what she was supposed to do with a knee injury,
but the kid had only threatened her, telling her to take it easy or she’d
ruin her knee. A moratorium on flying if she screwed it up.
She was supposed to be outside, enjoying the mountains and the
fresh air, yet here she was on New Year’s Eve, sitting in a Black Hawk
casino by herself.
She looked up the aisle, a parade of whirling colored lights. Where
did Julie go?
The crowded casino was decorated like an old saloon with painted
mirrors, tinted windows, and a Western bar at the side of the room. A
lemon Pledge scent clung to the furniture, barely masking the stench of
body odor and fried food.
She looked above her at the loft restaurant. People clustered
around the rail to watch the action below. Instead of the crystal she’d
seen in Vegas, an antler chandelier hung over the casino floor, and the
columns around the room were stacked with marbled river rock. If they
took out the game tables and slot machines, this place could pass for an
upscale fishing lodge.
She clasped three more quarters in her hands and kissed her
knuckles. This was the play she needed. She could feel it.
She spun again. This time she won a dollar. Big money.
A loud whistle blared from the next aisle, followed by a scream.
Someone was taking home a jackpot.
“Are you on a streak?” Julie asked as she sat down beside her and
handed her a tall glass of tea and an ice pack.
Leia put the ice on her swollen knee and sipped the cold tea. “A losing
Julie flicked her arm with a French-manicured nail. “Aren’t you
“I’ve fed ninety bucks to this machine.”
Julie lifted her drink, an orange concoction topped off with a cowboy
hat. “Then you’re overdue for some good luck.”
Julie’s black hair was pinned back in a French twist, and she wore
a snug lavender turtleneck above a black fluted skirt and stilettos. With
her flawless ivory skin and Barbie-like figure, Julie turned heads on
both the ski slopes and the casino floor. She worked as a flight attendant
for Corporate Direct, and several executives specifically requested
that she be on board whenever they flew.
They never requested Leia as a pilot, but with her plain brown hair
and stock uniform attire, she understood why. She didn’t care if the passengers
found her attractive as long as they respected her work, but
they should request her. She was meticulous about punctuality, dedicated
to arriving at their destination on time.
“Ethan’s going to wonder where all my money went.” She pointed
down to her knee. “That little emergency room trip cost more than our
“Your insurance will cover it.”
Leia sighed. “You don’t want to know how big our deductible is.”
“With that payment, Ethan won’t even notice the money you spent
today,” Julie said.
“He counts every penny I spend, twice.”
“Then just tell that cute husband of yours we went gambling.”
“Why don’t I just tell him we robbed a bank?”
“We couldn’t just sit in the hotel room all day and do nothing.”
“Yes, we could.”
“And be bored out of our minds.”
Leia rubbed her leg. When God created her husband, he gave him a
heart the size of Colorado and a conscience that weighed more than a
777. She loved the strength in his grace as he softened out her many
rough edges. She envied his steady moral compass and intense convictions.
But his pursuit of righteousness drove him to avoid any activity
that teetered on the fence between absolute right and wrong. In his
orderly world of black and white, gambling was akin to drunkenness
She’d never viewed gambling as a sin. When she was younger, she
even considered a few hours in a casino to be harmless fun. Ethan
didn’t know, but before they got married, she gambled when she had
layovers in Atlantic City. She hadn’t been inside a casino in four years,
but the last time she visited Atlantic City, she’d left Caesars with two
hundred extra dollars stuffed in her purse.
She couldn’t tell Ethan about these excursions. Tiptoeing around
issues like that was the secret to keeping their marriage intact.
Julie unclipped her twist, black hair pouring over her shoulders.
“Just tell him we spent the day chilling in a spa.”
“I can’t believe I let you talk me into coming here.”
“But you’re having fun, aren’t you?” Julie smiled as she deposited
money into the machine beside Leia and spun. The game dinged as a
trio of grapes clung to the second payline, and her friend let out a
shriek. When she hit a button, quarters emptied out of the machine.
It figured Julie would win on her first try. She was the queen of
Leia pulled the knob again. She wasn’t about to let a stupid game
beat her. After all, she’d spent the last seven years of her life at the controls
of much bigger machinery, commanding G3s with her fingertips.
No slot machine was going to get the best of her.
The Golden Wonder gobbled her last three quarters.
She turned to Julie. “Could you hang on to my machine while I get
“No problem. Do you want me to get the money for you?”
Leia shook her head. “I can do it.”
Curling her fingers over the white plastic rim, she grasped the
bucket by her side before securing both crutches and hobbling toward
the ATM at the center of the room.
Maroon-colored bar stools lined both sides of the aisle, someone
sitting in almost every one. But instead of chatting with each other, the
players were communing solely with the machines in front of them. She
hadn’t thought about it before, but gambling was a lonely sport, pushing
buttons and pulling knobs over and over to jockey for the big win.
A cheap thrill.
Didn’t they know what real excitement was? Try jumping out of a
plane at ten thousand feet or scuba diving with stingrays off Grand
Cayman or landing on a sliver of grass, otherwise known as an
airstrip, in the remote regions of the Philippines.
She entered her PIN into the ATM. This was the last try for her, and
then she was out of here. There were a hundred other things she’d
rather be doing if she could ditch her knee injury along with the
Forty dollars in quarters spilled out of the ATM, and Leia bent over
to shovel the change into her bucket. So far this was the only way she
could get cash in this casino. She should just stay here and withdraw
from her bank account every ten minutes so she could hear the clang of
falling change. At least she’d leave the place with some money.
As she balanced her crutches under her arms, a wave of panic hit
her. What if the casino name showed up on their statement? Ethan
would have an aneurysm.
Surely the withdrawal would just be recorded as a cash transaction.
If not, she’d have to come up with a good excuse. Not a lie, of course.
She’d use part of the money for food, so she could tell him she treated
Julie to a nice lunch.
Leia turned slowly to limp back to her machine. Yesterday she’d
barreled down a black-diamond run; today she could barely cross a
room. What was she going to do cooped up at home for three months?
It would drive her crazy.
She heard a deep laugh, and it surprised her, a lot of people
cheered in this casino, but it was the first laugh she’d heard all day. She
spun her head toward a card table and gasped.
All she saw was his back, thick shoulders, buzzed hair, and the
familiar brown jacket draped over the back of his stool. She squinted as
he leaned toward a woman next to him. There was no question. Derek
Barton was sitting at the poker table, his dark hair punctuating the
backdrop of platinum blonde.
She snuck backward. She couldn’t let him see her. If she went down
another aisle, she could sneak back to Julie and say her knee was killing
her. They had to get out of here before Derek decided to work the
He laughed again. Cocky was the best way to describe Derek
Barton. A Top Gun–type aviator and her husband’s childhood friend,
Derek was last person she wanted to see today. She hated when he and
his attitude came to visit them. He thought the world owed him because
he grew up as a military brat and now flew F-16s for the air force. Ethan
overlooked Derek’s audacity because her husband suffered from a condition
known as loyalty. Blind loyalty. Ethan could see a million faults
in the world around them, but when it came to his friends and his sister
and even his wife, he didn’t need blinders. His eyes were already shut.
If he ever opened his eyes, he’d be stunned to find her personal rap
sheet crammed full of flaws, but he never asked, and she never volunteered.
Derek was never honest about his faults either, but if he saw her
in this casino, Leia suspected that the man would relish in crushing
Ethan’s loyalty to his wife.
He’d probably be on the phone with Ethan before she said goodbye,
explaining how she’d fed their hard-earned money to a slot
She’d grab Julie and escape before he turned his head.
As she turned toward the aisle, someone bumped her arm, and her
quarters clanged when the bucket hit a chair.
She felt the plastic slipping from her grasp, sliding toward the floor.
She tried to hang on to it, throwing down her crutches and diving for
the bucket on one leg before it hit the floor.
Too late. Silver clanged around her feet as the coins bounced off
the tile like icy balls of hail.
She ducked and closed her eyes. Several people leaned down to
help her, but she didn’t move. Maybe Derek wouldn’t notice her. Maybe
he’d keep on laughing with his girlfriend or score a big hand. Anything
to distract him from her plight.
Derek Barton couldn’t find out that she was here.