Excerpt from The Pilot's Woman
Book #2 of the Halo Island Series
Standing on the dock, D.J. Hatcher flipped his aviator glasses atop his head. “I remember you—Liza Miller.”
The way his steel-gray eyes warmed as they flitted over her loose-fitting summer blouse and slacks made her wonder if he could see right through them. But the slacks were lined and the blouse was opaque, so of course he couldn’t.
All the same, her face grew warm. It'd been nearly three years since they’d last seen each other, and she was impressed. What a memory.
But then, it wasn’t every day that the pilot dealt with a sobbing disaster of a passenger.
With the brilliant June sky and glistening water of Lake Union providing the perfect backdrop, he stood ready to assist any of the passengers as they climbed aboard the seaplane.
“I remember you, too,” she said as he turned away and offered a hand to a white-haired woman.
His size, for one. He was a good five to six inches taller than Liza, and big, yet trim. With broad shoulders, and the trademark blue shirt with the blue-and-white Island Air logo on the pocket. He had the same military-short dark brown hair.
But three years ago she’d been too distraught to appreciate that he was drop-dead gorgeous.
Distraught? She’d been a basket case. Who wouldn’t have been, when a few hours earlier, just before her wedding, her fiancé had announced he was in love with someone else?
She'd never forgotten the pilot who’d whisked her away from Halo Island that day. After all the pain and humiliation, D.J.’s kindness and compassion had done much to soothe her raw feelings.
“How're you doing these days?” he asked as passengers waited their turn up the steps.
“Much better than the last time I saw you.” Which was absolutely true. She'd left the past behind and was almost at the point where she wanted to start dating again.
“Didn’t I say you’d be okay?”
Liza smiled as she recalled that D.J. had been through his own emotional hell. He’d shared his story the same night she’d fled the island. His wife of less than two years had run off with his best friend from college—who also happened to be his business partner.
“What about you?” she asked. “How are you?”
He didn’t quite meet her eyes, however, making her wonder.
“Heading back to the island for a visit?”
Liza nodded. “My grandmother has organized a family reunion.” Following which she was going to stay on the island to help Gram move to a retirement community—after fifty-four years in the same house. The very thought of emptying and selling the cottage where Gram and Grandpop had lived their entire married life… Well, it was going to be an emotional six weeks.
The last of the other passengers had disappeared into the plane, and D.J. checked his watch. “We’ll be taking off soon. You’d best board.”
As Liza moved up the steps, she could feel his gaze on her. For the first time in three years she wished she’d dressed in clothes that fit her body, instead of the shapeless things she’d taken to wearing.
Hiding her curves and going without makeup drastically reduced male interest. And wasn't that the point?
There was only one seat left in the ten-seater plane, in the back. As Liza fastened her seatbelt, the plane bobbed gently in the water. If she leaned toward the aisle, she could see D.J. up front, doing what he needed to before takeoff.
He was wearing a headset and fiddling with the controls, his shoulders straining his shirt.
Be still my heart, she thought, which was such a cliché that she had to snicker. And marvel at herself. Why this male? Why now?
She hadn’t paid much attention to men since that awful afternoon Timothy had left her stranded by the altar of the Halo Island Church. But she noticed now.
Since there was no flight attendant, D.J. swiveled in the pilot’s seat and spoke to everyone himself.
“Welcome aboard Island Air. I’m D.J. Hatcher, and I enjoy working here.” His mouth quirked. “I also own the business. For safety, leave those seatbelts buckled.
"We also fly to Vancouver, B.C., and offer charter flights, whale watching tours, and scenic tours around the area. If you'd like more information, pick up a brochure on your way out or check our website.”
He gave a quick rundown of the length of the flight—approximately an hour—and described the route over Puget Sound. There were no toilets on board, no food and nothing to drink. Sick sacks and briefing cards were tucked in the backs of the seats, with life vests stowed underneath.
After pointing out the emergency exit, he turned toward the flight panel. The engine roared to life, then settled to a steady hum as the plane taxied over the water.
The woman sitting across the aisle from Liza, an attractive brunette who looked about her age, bit her lip. “I’ve never been on a seaplane before. I’m nervous.”
“Don’t be. It’s a little bumpy, but the view is spectacular. And D.J.’s a terrific pilot.”
“He's hot. I saw you talking to him.” She looked envious. “Is he your boyfriend?”
Liza shook her head. “We're friends.” Although she’d only talked to him that one evening, the deeply personal things they'd shared made him more than an acquaintance. “What brings you to Halo Island?”
“A former colleague of mine, actually my boss for a short time, lives here. She and her husband invited me to visit, and I’m going over for a three-day weekend. I’m Kendra Eubanks.”
She offered her hand. Liza shook it. “Liza Miller. You’ll love the island.”
As the plane lifted from Lake Union, Kendra glanced out. Then turned back to Liza. “So you’ve been to Halo Island before?”
“I was born and raised there. Maybe I know your friend. What’s her name?”
“Tina Chase is her married name. She used to be Tina Morrell. When she got married and moved back here, she recommended me as her replacement. We’ve been friends ever since.”
“I remember Tina. She was a year ahead of me in school, but we worked on the yearbook and pep squad together. I haven’t seen her since she went off to college.”
Liza had always liked the plucky girl, who’d survived the loss of both parents and gone on to make a success of herself—thanks to the loving care of her fellow islanders. “Last I heard, she had a great job in Seattle. I had no idea she’d gotten married or moved back to the island.”
“It was only last Christmas. Do you know Ryan Chase? He has a little girl and he recently bought the Halo Island Bank. I believe he moved to the island from someplace else.”
“I don’t recognize the name, but I haven’t been there in three years.”
Since that horrible afternoon. The worst part had been Liza’s mother, Diane, who’d blamed her for the whole mess.
“I'm not surprised this happened,” she’d said. “If you’d quit your teaching job and moved in with Timothy, instead of forcing him to endure a long-distance relationship… I'll never live this down.”
Liza pushed away the painful memory. “Ryan must’ve settled there after I left.”
Kendra’s eyebrows arched. "Three years is a long time."
“I’ve been busy.” Avoiding Diane and Art, her new husband.
They spoke only at Christmas and on birthdays, the conversations stilted and brief. Diane had never apologized for what she’d said and Liza knew she never would. That wasn't her way.
She'd only seen Diane once since she'd left the island, at her and Art's wedding in Barbados the previous summer.
A brief and awkward meeting, with Diane pretending she’d never said those awful things and Liza seething and spoiling for a fight. Not wanting to ruin the occasion, she'd reined in her anger.
“What do you do?” Kendra asked.
“I’m an elementary school teacher.”
"Is that right? My mom teaches high school in Arizona. Do you teach in Seattle?"
"I've worked in several cities. Last fall, I accepted what I thought was a permanent position in Lynden, a little town near the Canadian border. Unfortunately, due to budget cuts, that fell through. I was laid off a week ago, at the end of the school year.”
“That's a shame.”
“I’m used to it. When you don’t have a continuing contract, it happens a lot.”
It didn’t seem to matter that Liza lived and breathed teaching and that she gave her heart and soul to the kids in her classrooms. She didn’t have enough seniority to keep the same job from one year to the next, and every time she had to move on it felt like a big slap in the face.
Until she had a continuing contract, there would be no job stability. And Liza wanted stability. She was tired of not knowing what would happen at the end of every school year.
“How long are you staying on the island?” Kendra asked.
“Through July.” In no mood for further conversation, Liza nodded at Kendra’s window. “It’s a gorgeous day and you really don’t want to miss the view.”
When Kendra peered out, Liza gave a quiet sigh of relief and stared out her own window. But with her life once again upside down, it was difficult to appreciate the sparkling water, flawless blue skies and the Cascade Mountains beyond.
She looked forward to being on the island again. Or would have if not for her mother. Fortunately, Diane and Art had scheduled a month-long trip to Australia, in celebration of their first anniversary. They were heading out early in July, a good week before Gram’s move. Leaving Liza to shoulder the brunt of the packing and the move itself. Naturally.
But that was a month away. Liza dreaded facing her mother. But this visit wasn’t about her, it was about her grandmother, who needed her.
And for Gram, Liza would have borne anything.
Having flown over the sound on a route as familiar to him as his own hand, D.J. let his mind wander to the woman seated in the last row. Liza Miller. He hadn't seen her in several years, but he remembered their early evening trip as if it were yesterday.
Every summer, tourists flocked to the island, and his life got crazy busy. On that particular flight she’d been his only passenger. He’d been headed to Seattle, in a piston Beaver, smaller than the ten-seat turbine Otter he piloted today, to visit the woman he was seeing at the time. Nothing serious. Just dinner, a movie and sex.
It had turned out to be a good thing Liza was the only passenger—she’d been a real mess—though not at first glance.
Heading down the dock toward the seaplane, in a short, swishy skirt, her hips swaying and her great legs eating up the distance.
A guy didn't forget something like that. Or the snug V-neck T-shirt clinging to her breasts. A lot different from the modest clothing she wore today.
Up close, he'd noted the desolate expression in her red-rimmed eyes. The wilting flowers woven into a what had been a fancy hairdo, but now looked as if it’d been through a windstorm.
He didn't handle crying women well, especially when flying a plane. Concerned that she might not be stable enough for the sometimes bumpy hour-long ride, he’d suggested she come back the next morning, when she felt better.
He’d never forgotten her raised chin and startling reply.
“If I stay on this island one more second, I swear, I'll scream. I'll probably strangle my mother, too. Get me out of here.”
Since she was the only passenger, he’d invited her to sit in the copilot’s seat up front. She’d slid in beside him, fastened her seatbelt, and watched as he taxied across the water and lifted off.
The plane wasn’t more than two hundred feet above the sound, with a spectacular view of the sinking sun, when she broke down. D.J. had to work the flaps in order to climb to two thousand feet, but the plane did most of the work, and he’d been able to listen as her tale spilled out.
“And I thought mine was the worst story ever,” he'd replied.
To help her realize she wasn’t the only person who’d ever been made a fool of, he’d summarized his sorry past. “Imagine catching your wife in bed with your so-called best friend and business partner.”
Shock and betrayal—talk about harsh. Later, he realized the signs had been there for a while, only he'd turned a blind eye. In the aftermath, he'd called himself dumbass, idiot, and stupid more times than he could count. “You'll get past this.”
She’d sniffled. “At the moment I’m not so sure about that.”
“What do you do, workwise?”
“I’m a teacher.”
“Lose yourself in your job. It helps.”
More than once he’d thought about her, wondering how she was. She looked good—color in her cheeks, shoulder-length hair loose around her shoulders, and full, generous lips. A lot better without the swollen eyes and runny nose. He could do without the baggy clothes, but his memory filled in the blanks.
No doubt she’d found some guy to keep her warm at night. Good luck with that. Love hurt, and he wanted no part of it.
He’d lied when he’d told Liza he’d never been better. Sheila and Mason had run off together four years ago, and D.J. was still untangling the financial mess they’d left him with.
The five-year balloon payment on the loan he and Mason had arranged when they’d bought and expanded Island Air was due the fifteenth of August, eight short weeks away. If things had gone as planned, D.J. would have been able to save what he needed to make the payment. But his life hadn't followed the path he'd envisioned. With a payroll, five planes to maintain and insure, climbing fuel bills, and the mountain of debt that Sheila had run up, he’d spent every penny to keep the company and himself afloat.
He didn’t have the money for the balloon payment. Which put him on the short end of losing the airline he loved, lived and breathed. Of being a failure. His shoulders stiffened and his belly clenched.
The Strait of Juan de Fuca and the San Juan Islands loomed ahead, with Halo Island due west. Time to prep for landing.
D.J. adjusted the flaps, then spoke into the mic. “We’re starting the descent, folks, so make sure those seatbelts are fastened. After we land, please stay seated. I’ll let you know when you can unbuckle.”
Thanks to a light wind, he executed a smooth landing, the plane’s floats skimming the water. Taxiing forward, he moved into position alongside a dock, pulled the throttle and braked to a stop. As soon as he killed the engine, he undid his own seatbelt and stood.
At the exit he opened and secured the door, then nodded at the passengers. “Hope you enjoyed the ride. You’re free to leave. Thanks for flying Island Air, and see you again.”
He went first. Down the steps to the dock. He stayed close, ready to lend a hand.
Passengers filed out, thanking him. Second to last came a busty blonde he’d noticed earlier. She gave him a hot look, accepted his help, and slipped her business card into his palm.
She was exactly his type, but he was more interested in the woman directly behind her. Liza.
He stuffed the card into his jeans pocket to throw away later and offered Liza his hand. Like the blonde, she took it. Unlike the blonde, her fingers were uncertain and cold despite the warm, sunny weather.
She met his gaze. Her eyes were vast and clear and the color of spring grass. Beautiful.
They widened slightly, and he realized he’d held on to her longer than necessary.
He dropped his arm and nodded. “Take care.”
“I will. Thanks for the ride. I… well, I appreciate everything you did for me. Before.”
“No problem. Enjoy your visit.”
He was sorely tempted to find out how long she’d be in town, and whether she had a boyfriend. Instead he watched her sling her purse over her shoulder and heft two suitcases.
"Let me help you with those," he offered.
She shook her head. "I'm fine."
All right, then. He didn’t expect to see her again until she caught a plane back to Seattle. With seven pilots—he always hired extras during tourist season—he might not see her again, period. Or maybe she’d catch a ferry to Anacortes and hop a bus back to Seattle.
Bart, one of the maintenance guys, was already hauling the plane up a ramp and out of the water, to check it over and gas it up before D.J.'s next round-trip flight to Seattle about an hour from now.
Meantime, Joe was waiting at the Salty Dog, a block away, to talk to him about "something," whatever the hell that meant. The blue-collar restaurant offered the best fish sandwiches in town, and D.J. was hungry enough to eat two. Already salivating, he headed off.