Authors: Robyn Carr
With Dixie and Carlisle helping, it didn't take all that long to get rid of Drake's personal effects, but going through his paperwork was something Nikki had to do on her own, and it would take more than a couple of days. Resigning herself to that fact, Nikki hunkered down for a long, hot summer in her ex's house.
But after a couple of weeks, it became harder, rather than easier, to be at the house. Nikki took the kids out for most of their meals rather than cook in Drake's kitchen. And no way could she move back into the master bedroom.
Then April said the magic words. “I hate being here because Dad died here. I wish there was a way we could start over completely.”
Oh, boy, was there ever. Nikki had the kids pack up their favorite things plus clothes, computer, books and games. She called the real estate agent and listed the house, and they all moved to Buck's.
“As soon as it sells,” Nikki promised April and Jared, “we'll get rid of the furniture and start over. Completely. New house, new furniture, new pots and pans. A new life for everyone.”
The only person in the family who wasn't happy about the sale of the house was Opal. “I was so looking for
ward to coming backâI've always loved that particular guest room.”
Nikki made a note to find a house with a guest room that was not quite as accommodating.
Carlisle had stayed with Dixie for a month, and his restlessness was growing more obvious to her by the day. He was cooking special dinners and complaining that she didn't have the necessary equipment for his gourmet cuisine. He kept tidying up rooms that were already immaculate, and often she noticed that he never turned the page on the book he was reading.
It was with some concern that Dixie prepared to leave Carlisle at home while she went to work a three-day trip. There was no question he was depressed. And Dixie's house was not far enough away from Robert to give her any peace of mind. She tried to convince Carlisle to go somewhere for the weekend. Or maybe stay at Buck's with Nikki and the kids.
“Oh, I couldn't do that.”
“You know. When it comes to housekeeping, they're prettyâ¦”
“Relaxed? Laid-back? Easygoing?”
Carlisle rolled his eyes. “More devil-may-care. Or perhaps Early Vandalism.”
She whacked him with a dish towel. “Stop. She's not that bad.”
“She's trying to be.”
“Well, just stay away from you-know-who while I'm gone.”
“Just worry about your own you-know-who,” he replied, making her fear the inevitable even more.
“Huh. I'm not even tempted,” she said, a little sur
prised that it was true. “And I hate to see you go through any more of those humiliating scenes.”
“But why? I'm so good at humiliation!”
As much as she loved him, Dixie conceded it was a good thing she was getting a little break. While she was preparing to transform her whole life, Carlisle appeared wretched. The situation at home was just getting too heavy. A couple of days away would do wonders for her, and she actually looked forward to the work.
She'd done a little trip trading to get a schedule better than the one she'd had while following Branch around, and she'd pulled a Phoenix-Seattle-San Francisco with a nice long layover the first night. She was looking forward to a little seafood dinner, and a cool ocean breeze as opposed to the desert heat.
But the Trip Gods had conspired against Dixie McPherson. She was supposed to be flying with Captain Danny Adams and F.O. Mike McGee. At least, that's what it said on her printout when she checked in for her flight. But when she boarded and looked out at the ramp, the F.O. doing the preflight walk-around was not McGee. She'd know that long, lanky, arrogant swagger anywhere.
God, what kind of karma had her constantly drawn to men like Branch? Had she, in a former life, been a cruel queen who took young male paramours and then hacked them to bits once she'd had her fun? She hoped so. She sincerely hoped so.
Since Dixie wasn't senior on the trip, she couldn't escape first class, the hardest serving job on the airplane, which meant she had to serve the cockpit, as well as the cabin. Given her lack of desire to fraternize, it didn't look as if the pilots would be well nourished this trip. But long before she could think about beverage revenge,
he poked his head into her galley on his way to the cockpit. Branch Darnell, his hat sitting jauntily back on his head, a roguish grin on his lips, and there at his hairline, a devilish-looking bright red gash. Somehow the wound only added to his good looks, which was par for the course. Anyone else would have been disfigured.
The extent of his injury took some of the bluster out of her sails. She let out a long, slow breath and gave her head a slight shake. “Um, I'm awful sorry about that. It was completely unintentionalâ¦.”
“Aw, don't beat yourself up, darlin'. I like my women feisty.”
Her mouth fell open slightly and she stared at him for a stunned, silent moment. Then she said, “Oh, you can't be flirting with me!” He gave a little shrug and headed for the cockpit. “I don't believe it!” she said to herself.
Dixie took a few deep breaths, counted to ten and decided to fake composure until the urge to put a matching dent on the other side of his forehead passed.
She was a professional. She wouldn't let a little thing like a ruined love affair and attempted murder prevent her from doing her job. She poured drinks, fluffed pillows, took dinner orders and spread good cheer through the first-class cabin. Until she heard his familiar silky drawl, she had almost forgotten how angry Branch had made her.
“Welcome aboard Flight 217 to Seattle, ladies and gentlemen. It looks like smooth skies and sunshine all the way to the Pacific Northwest, where you'll find the temperature to be around sixty-five degrees. We're cruising at thirty-one thousand feet and the seat belt sign is off. Now, if ya'll are up and about, take care not to clog up the aisles. We don't want to make life tough for our
flight attendants, five of Aries Airlines' most beautiful. They're also the sweetest we got, so you just let them know if there's anything you need. And when you're sittin' down, you keep that seat belt fastened. We thank you for choosingâ¦”
Branch knew that she came from a family of overachievers who teased that “Dixie majored in beauty,” a line that always hurt her. He could have made that announcement to purposely needle her. Then again, it was just as likely he hadn't listened to her when she'd bared her soul to him. Either way, it was a chancy thing he did, considering that in first class she had access to all those wine bottles and might just lose control and punch him in the stomach with one. Or maybe just whack him in the head to save time.
She settled her people with their food and their movie, then fixed up a tray with two meals and drinks for the cockpit.
Captain Adams greeted her. “Dixie, you must have read my mindâ¦I was just wondering if there was any food.”
“Coming right up,” she said. “One beef, one chicken.”
“What's your preference, Branch?” he asked.
The cockpit crew ate different entrÃ©es on the off chance there was tainted food on board. But it was the captain's call and Danny was a gentleman. “Well now, let's see.” Branch made a slow appraisal of each entrÃ©e. His answer should have been, “Whatever you don't want, sir.” But instead it was, “Believe I'll take the chicken, if that's all right. I hate what a caterer does to good old Texas beef.”
“Thanks, Dixie,” Danny said.
“Captain, I have a small favor to ask, if you'd be so kind.”
“Sure thing. What can I do?”
“I'd sure appreciate it if you'd have a little chat with your second in command, sir, and tell him we're not hired to be pretty or sweet. By FAA regulation, we're trained to open the door of this 767 upside down, in the dark, underwater, and get the people out safely. And we're mighty good at it, too.”
Danny chuckled. “Be happy to, Dixie,” he said, taking the tray from her.
The ride into Seattle was smooth and uneventful, and they were under way to San Francisco in no time. Because it was a good city for a layover and the layover was long, the whole crew was planning to go out together for dinner. This would definitely include Branch, who was very popular with the flight attendants. But before anyone even asked her, Dixie had an excuse ready. She was right in the middle of a very good book and would just grab a bite to eat at the hotel coffee shop or get a sandwich in the bar.
“Welcome aboard Flight 982 to San Francisco, ladies and gentlemen,” the Texan drawled in his lazy, sultry voice. He gave the weather, the cruising altitude, the instructions about seat belts. Then, unbelievably, Dixie heard, “You're gonna want to stay out of the aisles while our flight attendants are serving. They might not be the prettiest we got here at Aries, but they can be mean as junkyard dogs. But you gotta admit, they're workin' like a pack a mules back there, aren't they?”
Danny Adams had seen her come into the hotel bar at about nine o'clock, just in time to order dinner before the place stopped serving hot food. She had a book in
her hand and took a corner booth with a hanging Tiffany lamp over the table. In her jeans and knit shirt, her usual fluffy blond hair pulled into a clip at the nape of her neck, she looked like a young girl, though he knew she must be at least in her mid-thirties.
So, she hadn't gone out with the crew. Probably because of Branch. The first officer wasn't specific, but Danny got the impression he and Dixie had had some sort of misunderstanding. Tiff. Lover's quarrel?
At the age of thirty-eight, Danny had never been in a serious relationship. He was shy around women, which might be one explanation. Another would be height (short), weight (more than necessary), hair (very little) and general featuresâbland. Homely, he was homely. Each time he faced that reality, which was every morning as he shaved, he heard his mother's voice: “Now, Danny, you are not! You're simply average-looking, that's all.” But Danny knew the truthâhe was pretty ugly. His eyes were too small, his nose too big, no chin, large ears. His teeth were at least straight, thanks to Dr. Ward, with whom he'd spent the second Tuesday of every month for the majority of his adolescence.
Even though he'd known Dixie McPherson for years, Danny still felt that familiar old anxiety creeping over him at the thought of striking up a conversation with her in a social setting. He was great at work, especially as the captain in charge, but after hours he was a putz, and he knew it. Especially around a woman like Dixie. She was so incredibly beautiful, so poised and confident, so unattainable.
He was going to have to just suck it up and go to her, because he was on a mission. Picking up his glass of beer, he walked across the bar to her booth. “Dixie?” he said, looking down at her.
She glanced up from her book. “Hey, Danny. You didn't go out with the others?”
“No, I'm more the quiet-evening type.”
“I'm sure your wife appreciates that,” she said, closing her book.
“Huh?” he answered, then laughed in amusement that she might think that. “I'm not married.”
“You sure? I hear that a lot and it's usually not true.”
Without asking permission, he slid into the booth across from her. “Oh, man, do you? That's terrible. No, I mean itâI've never been married. Or even engaged.” He cleared his throat. “Ah, Dixie, I owe you an apology. I had absolutely no idea Branch was going to make that PA about the mules. I told him I was going to check with you and see if you were planning to write it up. I'll support you if you decide to. That was uncalled-for.”
“I'm not gonna write him up,” she said.
“He said you wouldn't. You two must have had some kind ofâSorry, Dixie. It's none of my business.”
“We were seein' each other,” Dixie told him, then suddenly realized how Branch had contrived her silenceâshe had been protecting him by being discreet, not the other way around. Who cared if she was dating a pilot? She was single, over twenty-one. “He said he was going through a divorce. He was lying.”
It took Danny a moment to absorb that. His experience with the volatility of love affairs was limited to the movies. “Why do people do things like that?”
“To get laid, Danny,” she said with a note of irritation.
“I know, but I mean
” Before Dixie could snap back,
he said, “Doesn't he know how lucky he is to have a wife, a family? Why would you
threaten that? There are people in the world who would give anything to have what he has.”
And I'm one of them,
came instantly to Dixie's mind. She was saved from comment by the arrival of her food. “Have you eaten, Danny?” she asked.
“Yeah. A couple of hours ago.”
“Well, have a French fry so I don't feel self-conscious eating alone.”
“Thanks,” he said, taking one. “I'm really sorry, Dixie. About all of it.”