Kissing Bridges
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Excerpt
The man said he flew often, but the white knuckles of his well-groomed hands gripping the seat's armrests betrayed him.

"A little turbulence today, but not bad." Kendra Atkinson inserted a note of motherliness into her professional voice as she turned the control wheel, adjusting the ailerons on the wings to stabilize the plane. "Ladyhawk will handle the bumps. Think of them as waves on a lake when the wind kicks up."

"I've traveled across the ocean on commercial liners in terrible weather." Garrett Beal's mouth tightened. He wiped his forehead. "Flying in a small plane seems…different."

So, getting up close and personal with the sky bothers you. When they took off near Washington, DC, her dark-haired passenger's intelligent face had impressed her. She'd even glanced at his bare ring finger.

Now he stiffened with Ladyhawk's every movement.

Nothing I like better than six hundred miles with an aerophobe beside me.

How could anyone not love soaring so high, the world at his feet? Kendra swept her gaze over the panorama. One day she'd own Ladyhawk outright, and she'd spend even more time in the air.

Watching the guy sweat, though, Kendra attempted to distract him. "Mr. Beal, did you say you're an engineer?"

He nodded, scanning the sky as if looking for fighter jets.

"Going to Rose-Hulman?" Brainy types often visited the prestigious technological institute in Terre Haute.

He nodded again. "Teaching a seminar and recruiting for my company, Global Working Solutions."

For the first time since takeoff, his royal blue eyes, through designer glasses, met hers.

Oh my. She caught her breath, reminding herself to listen to his response.

"Also, the American Heritage Bridge Association commissioned me to study the area's covered bridges."

"You're going to the right place." She grinned, pleased her tactic had relaxed him somewhat. "I live in Parke County. We have thirty-one bridges, and they're all my favorites."

"I heard—"

The plane lurched; his words died. "Wind's picking up a bit." Nothing to worry about, but he looked as if she dangled him over a cliff by one foot. She adjusted their airspeed, smiling. "Looks like rain over the Appalachians. They'll be glad. They suffered a drought last summer."

Mr. Beal didn't look glad, but he didn't cling to her as if he wanted his mommy. The next hour, as a perfectly normal fall shower splatted against the windshield, he sat ramrod straight and asked her about every instrument on the panel.

Good thing I'm used to teaching while I fly. She answered patiently but wondered how long this examination would last.

"What kind of license do you hold? How much have you flown?" His "cute guy" rating dropped to near zero as he quizzed her on her qualifications.

"I've been certified since age seventeen." That was half her lifetime ago, but why divulge that? "I've logged hundreds of flying hours, some over mountains and oceans, as well as other terrain." Kendra kept her tone measured. "I also teach aviation at Indiana State University."

He still fired questions, especially when a rumble of thunder nearly sent him into spasms.

You don't know how lucky you are, Mr. Engineer. Any other pilot would have rolled the plane by now and dumped you out—she gritted her teeth—or at least, scared you unconscious to shut you up.

She guided the plane away from cloud caverns. As they neared their destination, Ladyhawk seemed to purr at the thought of ditching this loser, too. Glancing at his taut face, Kendra tried to scratch up a shred of sympathy. He's not criticizing your flying. Some people just freak their first time in a small plane.

She cheered herself as much as him with her assurance—"We're only sixty miles from Terre Haute."

"What's the weather there?"

She sighed. "Still cloudy. A little turbulent, but I don't expect any problems."

As she spoke with the airport's tower and started her descent, the guy's shoulders under the navy golf shirt slowly rose until they almost reached his earlobes.

Hey, I don't want to crash, either. She longed to say it. Instead, she focused on gaining clearance to land and the familiar routine of gently pushing in the throttle and the control wheel, monitoring airspeed and vertical indicators, as well as the altimeter. A strong crosswind made the plane buck, nearly sending her anxious passenger through the roof. But working rudder controls with her feet, she brought Ladyhawk in for a relatively smooth landing. Taxiing down the runway, she wished people were as easy to manage as planes.

Thank You, God. Thank You. Garrett exhaled as the little plane shimmied to a stop.

"We're here." The pretty pilot cut the plane's engine. The propeller's whop-whop-whop slowed as she turned away to mark a clipboard. But not before he caught the hurrah! etched in her face.

No wonder. He'd been a pain. Especially bad because he would stay in Indiana at least three weeks, and as of now, she was the only person he knew. He liked the way her long, coppery ponytail curled down her back. "Ms. Atkinson?"

"Yes?" She faced him, raised eyebrows betraying a Now what?

"Thanks."

Her startlingly dark eyes widened.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be obnoxious. In new situations, I tend to ask lots of questions—"

A half smile, half grimace curved her generous mouth. "So I noticed."

"I'm sure I'll be more acclimated on our return flight."

Wrong thing to say. She looked as if he'd threatened her with life imprisonment. She cleared her throat. "I'm sorry your first experience aboard a small aircraft didn't work out well. If you'd prefer a different pilot, I won't take that as an insult."

She didn't sound offended. She sounded eager to get rid of him.

"No, no, I was more than satisfied with our flight." Panic welled up at the thought of navigating rain and lightning in another toy plane without her keen eyes on the instruments, her capable freckled hands on the controls—hands without a ring..

"If that's what you want."

"That's what I want."

"All right." She threw open her door and jumped from the plane. He grabbed his briefcase and baggage, overjoyed to escape its cockpit, yet reluctant to walk to the terminal.

He couldn't take his eyes off her. She seemed to have forgotten him completely, patting her plane's wing as if it were her child before securing it with cables. The long-absent sun, peeking from behind a cloud, playfully reached for the woman's hair, its rays fooling with her thick waves. Back in DC, aghast at the tiny plane, he hadn't noticed her height. He measured six feet four inches in his socks, and she probably wouldn't have to look up to him much. He liked dating taller women. He didn't have to walk at snail's pace when they went out, his neck didn't ache from constantly looking down, and they were easier to kiss.

Kiss? First, he didn't even know her. Second, she'd also find it easier to slug him!

"Do you need directions to the terminal?" She stood by her plane, arms folded.

She'd caught him staring.

"That's it over there, right?" He felt dumb for the hundredth time that day.

She nodded, that captivating smile-grimace crossing her face before she turned and walked away.

He paused long enough for her to disappear into the hangar. Part of him wished he had followed.

Forget it, Beal. If you did, she might smack you. Entering the terminal, he summoned his mental planner to rescue him from the weird, warm fog that clouded his methodical brain. Call contact to confirm arrival. Pick up rental car. Go to hotel. Finalize PowerPoint details for seminar.

He pulled out his smartphone and scanned it. The comforting confines of his life cooled the chaos of his journey somewhat. Nevertheless, he wished he'd dreamed up some excuse to take a picture of the pilot stroking her plane's wingtip, her professional mask gone, her face vulnerable. He wouldn't see her again until he left for DC.

You didn't come here to meet women. The mental memo directed his thoughts past the pilot, even past the seminar, recruiting work, and covered bridge studies. Only he and God knew the real reason he'd maneuvered job and schedule to spend time in Indiana, a place he'd never visited in his life.

Please help me, Lord. I'm not sure where to start.
 
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