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Authors: Robyn Carr

Blue Skies

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Praise for the novels of
ROBYN CARR

“Robyn Carr provides readers [with] a powerful, thought-provoking work of contemporary fiction.”

—
Midwest Book Review
on
Deep in the Valley

“Carr offers a well-written, warm-hearted story and a genuinely fun read.”

—
Publishers Weekly
on
The House on Olive Street

“You're in for a fun surprise—just wait and see who walks down the aisle. Don't miss this zany wedding.”

—Catherine Coulter on
The Wedding Party

“A remarkable storyteller…”

—
Library Journal

“A warm, wonderful book about women's friendships, love and family. I adored it!”

—Susan Elizabeth Phillips on
The House on Olive Street

“Readers who enjoy books about small-town life…will also enjoy reading about the good folks of Grace Valley.”

—Booklist
on
Down by the River

“A delightfully funny novel.”

—Midwest Book Review
on
The Wedding Party

Also by ROBYN CARR

DOWN BY THE RIVER

JUST OVER THE MOUNTAIN

THE WEDDING PARTY

DEEP IN THE VALLEY

THE HOUSE ON OLIVE STREET

ROBYN CARR
BLUE SKIES

For Jim, the strongest and kindest man I know.
And for the good people of National Airlines.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The commercial airline industry is close to my heart. My husband has spent over twenty years as a pilot and executive in the business. He is now with his fourth airline—and two of them were start-ups. It is a business so competitive and unpredictable that it takes very special, very courageous people to get an airline off the ground and keep it flying.

The people in this edgy, exciting industry are nothing short of awesome. They can vie for each other's passengers with cutthroat enthusiasm, but when there's an emergency or disaster, this is an industry that becomes a small town in which everyone helps everyone else. You can count on airline people.

Needless to say, I have had the privilege to know the brightest and the best in the industry—my friends for life—so everything I needed to know to set a story against the backdrop of this fabulous industry was at my fingertips. I've taken a few liberties with minor details for the sake of storytelling, and the characters are all entirely fictional, but hopefully this world of a start-up airline rings true enough.

There is one gentleman I'd like to tell you about. Michael J. Conway, president and CEO of the former National Airlines, and before that America West Airlines, is one of the most remarkable leaders I have known. I watched him take money out of his own wallet to give to a ramp worker who was waiting for a paycheck before buying his required steel-toed boots. “Buy them now,” Conway said. He encouraged
a vice president to send his secretary home to take care of her desperately handicapped baby and paid her salary for whatever work she could manage at home. Mike Conway pulled strings to send a flight attendant to spend twenty-four hours with her soldier husband in Kuwait during Desert Storm, arranged free passage for veterans to Washington, D.C., for Memorial Day remembrances and was the creator of the policy of sick leave that went like this: You're sick? We'll pay you till you're well, no matter how long it takes.

But the events of 9/11, unsurprisingly, brought out his best. National Airlines, once profitable and successful, had been feeling the strain of a troubled economy and rising fuel prices. Dealing with a country terrified to fly, Mike Conway put the seats on sale for $1.00 one day a week for a month. Getting the country back in the air was the most important thing, because it was the right thing to do. He was not discouraged, nor did he change his plans when the chairmen of other commercial airlines refused to participate. And on every single one of those flights—full flights—Mike Conway and all of his corporate officers flew along, one on every flight, and thanked the people for being there, for supporting the commercial aviation industry and the United States.

One

N
ikki stood at the grave of her ex-husband and thought,
This is the last way I expected to get custody.

Beside her was her fourteen-year-old daughter, April, quietly weeping. On Nikki's other side, eleven-year-old Jared stared straight ahead, stoic. Nikki could sense her father, Buck, towering behind them. He would be scowling, she knew. Buck had hated Drake Cameron and probably considered his death just one more thing Drake had screwed up. Next to April stood Nikki's mother, and Buck's ex-wife, Opal, seriously soaking a hanky. Tucked into the crook of her arm was her fluffy white poodle, Precious, who was not. Opal had liked Drake very much; she probably thought marrying him had been one of the few things Nikki had done right. Opal was one to appreciate money and pedigree, both of which she believed Drake had.

Only forty-seven, Drake had appeared to be at the peak of health. Nikki couldn't remember when he'd last had a head cold. Yet April had come home from school and found him facedown on the floor in his bathrobe, apparently dead since morning. The medical examiner's preliminary finding was massive coronary.

About fifty mourners gathered at the cemetery in the quickly rising heat of a late May morning in Phoenix. Most were lawyers and secretaries from the firm that had
employed Drake, a tax law specialist. The only one of them Nikki knew was his secretary, Mona, who had been with him for at least ten years, long before the divorce. Nikki had had to tangle with her every time she tried to make arrangements with Drake regarding the kids. A most unpleasant woman.

A couple of teachers from April's school had also come, as well as Jared's principal and one of the soccer coaches. A small knot of teenagers—April's friends—stood slightly off to one side, trying not to get too close to the adults.

It was not a big crowd. Like Nikki, Drake was an only child. His parents were deceased, and his rigid, domineering nature meant he didn't have a lot of friends. It was hard to cozy up to someone who insisted on control at any price. And then there was that business about grudges. Drake's anger had great stamina; he could stay mad forever.

Somewhere in the gathering were Nikki's two closest friends, Dixie McPherson and Carlisle Bartlett. Both were flight attendants at Aries Airlines, where Nikki was a pilot. They had worked together for the past ten years, starting when the company was still fairly new and small, and over the years there had been many times they'd have been lost without one another. Like now. Although Dixie and Carlisle were both involved in serious relationships, Nikki had been on her own since the divorce. Oddly, as she looked down at the black earth that would cover her dead ex-husband, an arm around each of her children, she felt
less
alone now.

The mourners filed past Nikki and the kids. “So sorry,” they murmured. “He'll be missed.” Or, “Hang in there, kids. Try to remember the good times you had with your dad.” April excused herself and went to join
her friends, who immediately embraced her. Jared's friends were probably considered too young by their parents to attend.

Nikki shook hands and thanked each person, but Opal accepted condolences as though Drake were her son, inviting everyone back to Drake's house for refreshments. Dixie and Carlisle waited till the last person had left, and April bid her friends goodbye and returned to Nikki's side.

“How're you holding up?” Dixie asked, while Carlisle simply filled his arms with April and Jared.

“She's doing very well, aren't you, Nicole?” Opal replied for her. Precious snarled.

“I'm doing okay. Are you coming over to the house?”

Before Dixie could answer, April pulled herself free of Carlisle's arms and, tears in her voice, asked, “Do we have to just keep doing this? Over and over and over?”

Nikki couldn't imagine her pain. The kids had had a hard time with their dad, but they had loved him. The hell of it was, she thought as she looked at Opal, you loved your parents even when you hated them. As for Jared, he just stared out at nothing, his detachment as troubling as April's tears.

“Oh, April,” Opal said. “People are going to be there, sweet. It's the proper thing to do. Say a few kind words about the departed…offer sympathy…And your friends will be there.”

“No, they won't, Grandma. I told them not to come.”

“But we invited—”

“So? Do we
have
to?”

“It's your house, April,” Nikki interjected. “I think Grandma's just trying to do the right thing….”

“What a pain,” Jared muttered, giving the ground a kick.

“We don't want to seem rude,” Opal said.

Buck grunted and turned away, heading for his car.

This whole reception thing her mother had planned was not for Opal, Nikki realized, and certainly not for herself. It was for April and Jared. And if they didn't want to do this…

“Um, guys,” she said to Dixie and Carlisle, “can you take my mother to the house? We're going to beg off. I'll see you later.”

“Thatta girl,” Carlisle cheered.

“Nicole! You can't do that!”

“Of course I can, Mother. We'll be along later. Come on, kids. I have an idea.”

With an arm around each, she walked them right past the funeral parlor's limo to her car.

 

Nikki had been born thirty-nine years before and named Nicole Evelyn Burgess. At that time, Buck Burgess was a twenty-seven-year-old aviator who worked a lot of part-time jobs. He dusted crops, flew cargo, gave lessons, took charters, sometimes buzzed the Grand Canyon. He also pumped gas, washed planes, swept out hangars, turned a wrench here and there—anything to be around the small municipal airport just outside Phoenix, Arizona. On the day of her birth he bought a twenty-year-old Stearman biplane and christened her the
Jazzie One.
It was the first plane Nikki learned to fly.

A few years later, rather than buying his wife jewelry or a larger house or new car, he bought into the fixed-base operation at the airport and became a partner. Still later, after Opal left him for a man without engine grease under his nails, Buck bought the rest of the operation. It
then became Burgess Aviation and the place where Nikki grew up, because when Opal left Buck, she also left Nikki. “I'm not an idiot,” she had said. “I know Nikki will be happier with you.”

Although that was true, Nikki had been only nine at the time, and she felt as if her whole life had fallen apart. If not for the flying, she'd have been lost.

So that was where Nikki took her kids after the funeral—to Papa's airport. Buck was already there and helped her unleash the
Jazzie One
from her anchors.

“Me first, Mom,” April said. “Please?”

Through the whole miserable ordeal of Drake's death, this one thing lifted Nikki's heart, that April would reach for the sky in an effort to come to terms with her grief. April was okay with flying and knew how. She could hardly escape it with her grandfather the owner of a large and successful fixed-base operation and her mother a Boeing 767 captain. But she didn't love it the way Nikki did, or Buck and Jared, so her eagerness was all the more precious to Nikki.

She'd take the kids out for a few loops over the desert, a little wild-horse chasing up where it was cool blue and clean and quiet. In all the tough times of her life—whether she'd been stood up for the Homecoming dance or going through a divorce—nothing could breathe new life into Nikki like the sun and wind on her face and the music of the biplane wires as she soared through the sky.

The instant she had traded her dark blue funeral suit and pumps for the mechanic's overalls and boots that she kept in a locker at the airport, Nikki had felt instantly more like herself. She'd found some sweats and tennis shoes in the same locker for April to use. Her daughter had sniffed them suspiciously and made a face, but she donned them quickly enough.

Nikki then fastened the leather flying helmet on April's head, pulling back her daughter's pretty blond hair to adjust the helmet over the earplugs attached to April's portable CD player. God, but the girl was beautiful, all pale flawless skin, large, luminous blue eyes and thick dusty-black lashes that fell softly against her cheeks as she glanced down. She had inherited her father's Nordic good looks and lean, sturdy body. Jared, freckled and already broad-shouldered, took after Nikki and Buck.

April climbed into the front of the Stearman, and Nikki into the back, while Buck stood ready on the tarmac with Jared. Nikki could have taken up the Bonanza or Cessna and had both kids in the air together, but flying outside with the wind on your face was so much more therapeutic.

She flipped a couple of switches, pulled the throttle back and yelled, “Contact!” Buck turned the prop, the plane sputtered, the engine caught, and they rumbled out to the runway. In just moments Nikki could feel that familiar lurch as the
Jazzie One
lifted off the ground and began to soar. Up. Up. Up.

How ironic, she thought. This was where she'd met Drake. She'd fallen in love with him in the Stearman, or at least thought she had. She'd worked at getting over him in the Stearman, and now she was burying his memory in the same plane, flying over the same old ground.

Fifteen years ago, Nikki was a petite and sexy twenty-four year old with boundless energy, working for her dad at Burgess Aviation. She was a graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University with a degree in aerospace engineering, sigma cum laude. Plus, she could fly the hell out of just about any plane she climbed into. And she was in love with Paul, whom she had dated for
a couple of years and expected to marry. They were both pilots looking for work in commercial aviation.

Paul got hired by Delta, left Phoenix to fly out of Dallas, met a flashy young flight attendant and broke up with Nikki over the phone. And that was when her life began to fall apart for the second time.

Her heart empty and aching, she took notice of a good-looking young lawyer who had signed up for flying lessons at Burgess. Drake was thirty-two and almost unbearably handsome. Nikki used to watch him when he went out with his instructor, but she didn't speak to him until the day she found him waiting for her, leaning against the hangar doors and looking devilishly sexy. “What would it cost me to have a ride in that thing?” he asked, pointing to the Stearman she'd just landed.

She shrugged. He looked like an even bigger risk than Paul, and she wasn't about to take that kind of chance again. Casually, she answered, “A cup of coffee?”

He grinned at her. “Say when!”

There were warning bells going off all over the place, but Nikki didn't pay much attention because after Paul, she wasn't about to take any chances on a guy, even if she was miserably lonely. She just loved an excuse to fly. “How about right now?”

It happened without her realizing it. Disinterested and detached as she was, she must have appeared a real challenge, because Drake wooed her vigorously. He flattered, showered her with attention, brought her gifts and flowers. Slowly she began to forget that Paul had ripped her heart out and handed it to her. With every ride she gave him in the biplane, she let go a little more and thought, what the hell? You only live once. The first time he kissed her, she felt hot and wild, and when he touched her breast she nearly died. In less than six months, she
was pregnant and had married him. Not some of her best planning.

Drake never did get the knack of flying and gave up the notion in no time. It didn't take long before Nikki realized what a terrible mistake she'd made. He was impossible to please. He needled her about everything from her feeble housekeeping skills to her figure, which he found lacking, and he was furious at her refusal to take the name Cameron. But she was Nikki Burgess and planned to always be Nikki Burgess.

Had it not been for her father, things might have been worse. Buck, sweet old thing that he was, could look very threatening. In size alone he was intimidating. And he had not liked Drake from the first. Had Drake dared to so much as lay a hand on Nikki or the kids, Buck might have killed him.

She should have run for her life the moment she heard scorn in Drake's voice…but she was so stubborn. Plus, there was April. And as every abused and unhappy wife knew, once you stayed past the time you should've gone, you ended up staying far too long.

“Get out and don't look back,” Buck kept saying.

“I'm sure you're being far too particular,” said Opal. “After all, he makes a nice living.”

It took her eleven years of unhappiness to leave him and she had no idea how high a price she'd have to pay.

Determined not to go quietly, Drake fought her every step of the way, right down to custody. Ultimately the issue came down to work. Nikki's job as a pilot for Aries Airlines took her out of town for three to four days a week; Drake's hours were nine to five, more or less, no nights away from the kids. It was very easy for his lawyer to convince a judge that Drake should have custodial guardianship and Nikki unlimited visitation. That meant
she could spend as much time with the kids as she could manage to negotiate with Drake, which she quickly learned would be very challenging. And she paid child support.

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