A Lodi Christmas
Chapter 1

Copyright© 2019 by AA Nemo

Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away

If you can use some exotic booze, there’s a bar in far Bombay

Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away

- Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn


December 2018

Case Reynolds eased the single-engine turboprop Socata TBM 900 onto the runway at the Orange County Airport. The tires gave just the slightest chirp as he touched down. He looked at the digital clock on the dash. It read 1800.

Right on time, but dark already.

He prided himself on his punctuality – 2800 miles, five stops and right on the money – of course in the air delivery business time was indeed money. Ground control instructed him to hold on the taxiway while a couple of 737s headed out.

Glorified bus drivers. Although those 737 guys do get paid a heck of a lot more and they certainly fly less. Nope, wouldn’t change a thing - just me in the cockpit and no surly passengers to placate and babysit.

After he’d been discharged from the Air Force he hadn’t even considered applying with one of the airlines. Of course, he had very little jet time and almost no multiengine time. No, right after primary flight training, the Air Force had diverted him from jet fighter training into a startup program where he was trained on the single-engine turboprop counter-insurgency plane, the Super Tucano. After he gained proficiency he was sent to train Afghani pilots in Florida. He was assured after his assignment he’d get a slot at jet fighter school. Of course they neglected to mention he would be deployed for a year with the Afghani pilots he had trained, doing close air support.

Jet fighter school – yeah no problem - but by the way kid, just don’t get your ass shot off rolling in on heavily fortified Taliban positions at low altitude!

The tandem two-seater A-29B Super Tucano was a joy to fly, rugged and carried a heck of a payload.

Too bad it isn’t 37 mm cannon proof, although it did bring me back – barely. My Afghani pilot wasn’t as fortunate. It was just luck of the draw that day that had him sitting up front instead of me.

A few months after being pulled from his shot-up Tucano, the Air Force decided Case was no longer physically fit to fly, so his dream of an Air Force career and jet fighter school went out the window. Then he met Jeff Paulson while in rehab at Walter Reed. He was convinced that but for that fortuitous meeting he’d probably be washing airplanes at Augusta Regional or Columbia Metropolitan like he did in high school just to get rides, and living with Mom and Dad on the farm outside the metropolis of Barnwell, South Carolina.

He winced at the thought - definitely not living with Mom and Dad. It wasn’t that he hadn’t had a good life growing up; he’d just never wanted to be a farmer. As a kid he remembered riding the tractor or being in one of the peach trees in their orchard and he would look up and see the planes making their approach into Augusta or Columbia, fifty or so miles away. He’d never wanted to be anything but a pilot.

When Case met Jeff Paulson, Jeff was getting ready to leave the Navy and he and his wife Rachel were starting an air delivery service, Air-Bytes, which specialized in getting critical parts and sensitive items delivered to and from various high tech centers across the western US. Case scraped enough money together to become a partner and was the third pilot along with them.

Air-Bytes had three leased TBM 900s, with two of the three aircraft in the air seven days a week. Each morning one of their planes started in Austin Texas and one started at Orange County California. With three pilots it worked out that you flew two days in a row – Austin to Orange County, via Salt Lake, Boise, Seattle, Portland and San Jose, then Orange County to Austin, touching down in the same cities in reverse order. Then you had a day off. They had maintenance facilities and hangers in Austin and Orange County and offices in secure hangers in the others. Air-Bytes main office – such as it was – was located in the Austin hanger.

Finally released by ground control, Case moved his aircraft along the lighted taxiway to their hangar. It wasn’t just a hangar; it was home when he and the other pilots overnighted at Orange County. Air-Bytes had constructed a fully furnished three-bedroom apartment which ran along the back of the inside of the big hangar. To most it just appeared to be the wall at the back and for security purposes it could only be accessed through their office. Technically an apartment wasn’t permitted but the landlord had never visited and most likely didn’t care what they did with the space as long as the rent was paid. Rose McGlinn, their Orange County office manager, and her daughter Josie, their west coast mechanic, lived there. One bedroom was reserved for the pilots staying overnight. This practice saved on expenses and was very convenient for everyone.

Case shut down the engine and from the cockpit watched the tall, slim, flame-haired Josie position the tug to grab the front gear. She expertly pulled the plane from the dark apron into the brightly lit hangar and then stowed the tug before disappearing toward the hangar doors. He knew she was securing the doors. He waited until the young woman in her spotless gray coveralls - How does she do that? - reappeared near the nose and gave him the thumbs up. Because of the sensitive and often priceless high-tech hardware, pilots were not allowed to open either of the plane’s doors until the hangar doors were secure. He knew Josie was armed. Like him, she carried a pistol when she was handling their cargo. All of their office managers across the seven-city system they served were similarly trained and armed. They’d never had any trouble but as they say, you don’t need a gun until you need a gun.

“Hi Josie.” He walked down the short boarding stairs from the large hatch located on the left side of the aircraft, glad to be wearing his leather USAF flight jacket. Even southern California could get nippy in December, especially on these short winter days, and the hangar was only marginally heated.

“Hi Case, any problems with Charlie?” She asked in her distinct southwest Texas drawl.

He smiled as he shook his head. Josie had named the three planes, Alpha, Bravo and Charlie. She didn’t even have to see their registration numbers to tell them apart and claimed that each Pratt and Whitney engine just sounded different even though they were identical airplanes. Case knew according to their serial numbers the planes had come off the Tarbes, France assembly line one right after the other.

“How was your flight?”

“Uneventful.”

“Case, you say that every time. I swear you’d tell me it was uneventful even if you had to fly through a Category Five hurricane.”

She’s right, I do say it each time, and ninety nine point nine percent of the time it’s true. These planes are rock solid and they’re expertly maintained and I’m an experienced pilot going into airfields I know. But I am a bit jaundiced since I consider any flight where someone’s not trying to shoot my ass off as uneventful.

“But it’s true Josie. For the most part the weather was good – a short stretch of IFR between Salt Lake and Boise, but this time of year that’s the norm - nothing to worry about. And that was simply because for that short distance I couldn’t climb over the weather. Charlie did just fine. These are amazing airplanes and you’re an amazing mechanic.”

Josie flushed a bit at the compliment and mumbled something about ‘Just doing my job.’

Just then Rose McGlinn appeared from the office pushing a large two-level metal cart. She was an older, slightly softer-looking version of her daughter, although she wore her red hair much longer and kept it in a youthful ponytail. She was wearing the uniform of Air-Bytes, white oxford button down long-sleeve shirt, navy blue slacks and dark shoes. Each shirt, like his own, had the employee’s name embroidered above the left breast pocket along with the logo, a computer chip with feathered wings.

Not for the first time Case wondered how old she was when she gave birth to Josie. Pretty young he’d guessed, and there was no indication that there was any husband past or present. Rachel Paulson had simply said that they’d hired Josie away from a failing flying school in Austin, and having Rose come along was a bonus. Apparently they’d been living hand to mouth in a decrepit trailer on the outskirts of the city

“Okay you two, a little less jawing and a lot more unloading. The guys at ABS are already here and ITR and Comcen are en route.”

Case gave her a crisp salute. “Yes Ma’am.”

She grinned. “Josie, that’s what I like to see. No grumbling - Captain Reynolds is a real southern gentleman.” Case didn’t know if she was referring to his former Air Force rank or the fact he was in command of an aircraft. She tended to call all three pilots ‘Captain.’

Josie rolled her eyes and started handing down the locked metal tubs from the inside of the aircraft. Each of the tech companies had their own shielded tub or tubs. For security reasons no one at Air-Bytes knew what they contained. Each company got a selection of sizes to make it easier to ship larger or small items. It didn’t matter what they shipped, as each paid a flat fee per month whether they used the service or not. Rose used a hand scanner on each tub before it was loaded on the cart.

The plane was pretty full. Case suspected that the customers were pushing things forward because after Jeff Paulson arrived tomorrow then left the next day for Austin, the whole operation would be closed down for ten days for the Christmas-New Year holidays.

Today had been Case’s last flight for the year. He had volunteered to fly over the Christmas break like last year, but Cassandra Cavanaugh, the CEO, had been adamant that he and Jeff and Rachel take vacation. She also pointed out that most of their customers would be shut down or be operating with limited staff during the holidays, so they might as well take some much needed time off. He, like they, had been flying two out of every three days for the sixteen months since Air-Bytes had made its first flight. He also knew that Josie was going to perform some scheduled maintenance on Charlie while it was in her capable hands – Alpha and Bravo would get the same treatment in Austin.

Over the break Case was going to stay with his sister Juliet, who was with the police force in Lodi. He had considered traveling home to Barnwell but it would eat up a lot of time. Juliet, as a fairly junior cop, just couldn’t get the time off, so he opted to stay on the West Coast, and spend Christmas with her.

Their younger sister Chloe, a junior at Georgia Tech, would spend the Christmas holiday with their parents at home on the farm. Chloe was the real brain of the three children but she was only interested in one thing – farming - and was working on a double major in agronomy and computer science. Case knew the technical aspects of farming – he could grow crops and drive a tractor and a harvester and pretty much fix anything that went wrong, but he figured that made him a farm hand not a farmer, unlike his parents and his sister who loved the land. He was convinced they could simply glance at the soil or at a crop or a peach tree and know what was needed to make it prosper.

What the heck am I going to do in Lodi with my sister during this downtime anyway? Guess that’s why it’s called downtime, since we don’t have anything planned and it really doesn’t matter as long as we get to spend some time together. Haven’t seen her in two years, when the family visited while I was in rehab at Walter Reed. That was a wonderful surprise. Just wish we could spend more time together. Maybe someday...

He hadn’t spent much time with his family since he left for the Air Force Academy ten years before – mostly it was distance and assignments which had conspired to keep them apart, but now Juliet was counting on him joining her for Christmas. He and his family had kept up mostly through email while he was on his far-flung assignments. It wasn’t the same as getting together but it was contact with home. His mother, Grace, had come from the big city of Charleston (compared to Barnwell population 4,500) and was a wry observer of small town life. Her missives were never petty or condescending of her fellow citizens. They were mainly humorous anecdotes that oftentimes skewered local, state, or federal bureaucracies and politicians who seemed to do their best to prevent famers from making a living.

They got the cargo onto the cart and then he helped Rose and Josie push it into the secure area in the hanger – a chain-link enclosure that had a steel door to the outside where their customers were waiting. Rose got situated behind the counter, and after cranking up the space heater and consulting the high definition security cameras she nodded to Josie to open the door.

As Case headed for the office to close out his log, Rose called after him, “Case, beef stew in the Crockpot and warm jalapeno cornbread in the oven. Oh, Ms. Cavanaugh is waiting to talk to you.”

Cassandra? What’s the CEO want to talk about?

Casandra’s mother, Pamela Hawthorn, had been the original backer of Air-Bytes, and in early 2017 had quickly put together the consortium that funded the startup. Well, mostly. He and Jeff and Rachel put up every cent they had. Cassandra had volunteered to help in any way she could and the partners decided with her degree in business she might gain some valuable experience as CEO. Cassandra had admitted the other investors probably gave her the nod because she agreed she’d do it without pay. Of course none of the pilots drew any pay either – they, like Cassandra and the other officers of the corporation, had all taken stock in lieu of compensation.

Casandra’s selection as CEO had been a wise decision. Even though she was just twenty-two and fresh out of Stanford when Air-Bytes was incorporated, Casandra rose to the challenge. She had a number of tech companies under contract weeks before they even took delivery of their airplanes. She’d also set up satellite offices. From the beginning she spent her time traveling between the cities they served, keeping those offices on track, and keeping them and the customers happy while drumming up new business. Air-Bytes was now in the black and it was largely due to the hard work and the determination of one Cassandra Cavanaugh. She had flown with Case a number of times when visiting clients and their offices, allowed solely on the basis that she was an employee as they were prohibited from carrying passengers.

Cassandra based herself in southern California, because her husband, Marine Lieutenant Noah Matthews, was an instructor at the School of Infantry at Camp Pendleton. Orange County Airport was less than fifty miles from the main gate at Camp Pendleton and only about thirty miles from the town of San Clemente, where Cassandra and Noah had their home.

His own small VA pension kept him afloat, although it hardly mattered since he had few expenses – no home, no car – only a ten year old Harley Sportster - and little time to spend money on anything or anyone.

Anyone? There had been someone.

He shook his head trying to dislodge the memory. He’d fallen in love, but contrary to appearances, she hadn’t. It ended badly not long ago and the ache was still there.

On my days off in Austin I ride away and hide, especially from her. Sometimes I can’t avoid her, but on those occasions I wear my anger as armor – anger that manifests as cold formality.

Now I’m very cautious around women and I use that breakup and my schedule as an excuse to avoid getting involved – once bitten ... It’s not that I don’t have women friends – I’m fortunate to count Cassandra as one of them. Rose and Josie are definitely in the friends column, as are the ladies in the Austin office.

Another face came to mind - Vika Vishnevsky – Cassandra’s stunning blonde assistant and Air-Bytes backup pilot, who he also considered a friend. Of late, Vika was a friend who wanted more.

Vika had soloed at seventeen and, like Case, she lived to fly. Unlike Case, she had wealthy parents who paid for her instruction. There was no washing airplanes and begging rides for Vika. Case didn’t hold that against her. Flying was flying and the path that got you there hardly mattered.

Last summer, shortly after Vika graduated from the business program at the University of San Diego, she’d convinced Cassandra that on top of her duties as assistant she should be hired on a contract basis to fill in when one of the three pilots was sick or needed a break. As assistant she’d flown with Case and Jeff and Rachel several times visiting offices and customers, especially the last few months. During those times it was only natural that he let her fly the TBM. She was already rated in anything up to multiengine and she even had a license to fly helicopters, something Case had never aspired to. He was convinced nothing without wings could actually fly. Of course Jeff Paulson, former Navy helicopter pilot, disagreed.

Vika was a natural pilot. When Case had done her pre-hiring check ride on the TBM she had done everything by the book, but more importantly she showed her natural feel for the aircraft. Case told Cassandra that he’d fly with Vika anytime.

Yes, she’s a friend, but she wants a whole lot more and since I became ‘unattached’ she’s upped her game – often hanging out with Josie and Rose at the Orange County hangar when I arrive, and then accepting Rose’s invitation to join us for dinner where the four of us sit around the kitchen table chatting about our day like some 50’s sitcom family. A few times she’s managed to get me to dinner at her parents’ home which is just a short drive away.

Lately she’d taken to giving him a brief kiss when he’d walk her to her car after dinner at the hangar or when she dropped him off after dinner with her parents.

I’m still being cautious but it’s becoming harder to resist. I’m a male of the species and being pursued by a beautiful young woman is flattering and a balm to my bruised ego, but she is awfully young, being just past her twenty-second birthday. Next to her at almost twenty-nine I feel like an old man.

It’s a good thing I can’t drink on those evenings since I have to fly the next morning, or I might just be tempted ... well, let’s not go there.

He almost laughed as he envisioned the look of surprise on Rose and Josie’s faces if he and Vika came out of the pilot’s bedroom together some morning and joined them for breakfast.

Would they be surprised? Perhaps not.

Case finally put away those pleasant thoughts and turned back to the question at hand. What did Cassandra want? It was rare that she was at the hangar when he arrived since she usually worked out of her home office.

He walked into the office at the back of the hangar, noticing how beautifully decorated it was. It appeared Rose and Josie had gone all out and the Christmas tree in the corner had a number of foil-wrapped presents underneath. Case smiled when he noticed that other than lights, it only had craft paper cutouts of their aircraft as ornaments. Each was colored to match the red, white and blue livery of the originals. He stopped, took two gift cards from his flight bag, and left them under the tree, and then took a few minutes at Rose’s desk to close out his log. After securing his pistol in the office safe, he headed to the kitchen.

Whatever Cassandra wants can wait until I get my dinner.

Case walked by the door to the conference room on his way to the kitchen.

At a glance he saw Cassandra sitting at the battered wooden table engrossed in her tablet, typing on her portable keypad. Next to Cassandra, Vika was doing the same thing. He was pleased to see her, but since she was with Cassandra this was not a social call.

If nothing else I’ll ask her to drive me over to the passenger terminal and we can at least have a little time together. Maybe a little longer farewell kiss might be in order. Case smiled at the thought. She doesn’t seem to mind that I’m on the rebound, and how could I not appreciate the attention? Still too young? Yeah, there is that...

Neither of the striking blondes looked up as he walked by.

Noah is a lucky guy. Cassandra’s beautiful, smart and successful. Vika is stunning too. She was awfully disappointed when I had to turn down her invitation to spend Christmas with her family. Too bad I don’t have my own airplane. With something like a Cessna 172 I could easily spend Christmas morning with Juliet and then fly the 400 miles down here in about three hours. Yeah and where would I find $75,000 for a good used one, to say nothing of all the other expenses associated with owning an airplane? Dream on!

Case walked into the brightly lighted kitchen, the smell of the stew making his mouth water. As he filled his bowl he thought of the wonderful meals at Vika’s parents’ large, Pacific-view home. Each time he’d been there he’d felt welcome. They were nice people, and it didn’t seem to bother them that their daughter had a crush on a delivery pilot who lived in a hangar and was several years older.

Vika and I have never even been on a real date. My ten pm curfew and no alcohol because I have to fly the next morning pretty much limits our time together and what we do. She does fly with me from Orange County, more often than not taking Cassandra’s place in visiting our far-flung offices, but during those times we’re all business. Then I drop her off in San Jose, or Seattle or Boise, where she spends the night and waits for Jeff or Rachel to come through going the other direction the next day. What kind of relationship is that? I have every third day off, but I’m in Austin while she’s 1200 miles away.

The woman I loved, or maybe still love, lives in Austin, and probably in Dallas too by now, but that relationship started before the first Air-Bytes plane took to the air. We were thrown together each day and many long evenings and sometimes on overnight trips, as the principals struggled to make Rachel’s dream of Air-Bytes come to fruition. Once I started flying it was harder because I was gone most weekends, and with only one day off, that left no time for romantic get-aways, but we made it work. Well I thought it worked. We were in love – at least I was and I thought she was too – more the fool I.

With some effort he pushed those thoughts aside to concentrate again on the reason for Cassandra’s visit.

Now we’re in the black maybe Cassandra’s decided we can hire that fourth pilot. Vika could easily step in as our first salaried pilot – whenever that happens. Under contract she’s already proven she can handle the flying and the routes. Cassandra’s right, we all need some more time off, and an additional pilot would allow each of us to take more than a few days off now and again.

A few minutes later Case returned to the conference room with a bamboo tray carrying a large bowl of beef stew, a plate of cornbread squares, and a small salad along with a cup of black coffee. He usually eschewed coffee in the evenings, but he had a commercial flight to Sacramento this evening and then the hour drive from there to Lodi. Fortunately Juliet was picking him up. He’d volunteered to get a rental, but she had explained that her car just sat at the police station most days while she was in a patrol car so there was no need.

He paused in the doorway and examined the two women. Cassandra was elegantly casual, hair pulled back in a ponytail fastened by a gold clip and wearing a red cashmere sweater which sported a red and green sunburst brooch near her left shoulder. Vika, of Belorussian descent, her collar-length blonde hair framing her face, was wearing a white turtleneck, bearing an embroidered Air-Bytes logo.

That’s a new look.

Her leather flight jacket was draped over the back of her chair. An embossed Air-Bytes logo adorned the left breast where flight wings would normally be pinned.

Cassandra looked up and gave him a tenuous smile.

What’s going on?

Case stepped into the room and froze. The cheerful greeting he’d planned for Cassandra and Vika caught in his throat. There was a third person who’d been out of his line of sight when he’d walked by the door minutes before.

Anastasia! What’s she doing here?

She was holding a bright red ceramic coffee mug and leaning back against the counter which ran the length of the side of the room.

No wonder I didn’t see her.

As much as he wanted to, Case couldn’t just ignore her so he simply acknowledged her presence with a nod and said, “Anastasia.” He was surprised how neutral he sounded. Her slight smile disappeared, replaced by her tough lawyer facade, but not before he saw a flash of uncertainty in her eyes.

Or maybe it’s just annoyance because I’m no longer enthralled.

Her greeting mirrored his. “Case.”

She broke eye contact first, half turning and examining a platter of home-baked Christmas cookies before selecting one and putting it on a plate.

She’s still as beautiful as ever – fashion model tall and willowy. She’s cut her auburn hair – now more of a pageboy - since the last time I saw her at the Air-Bytes Board meeting in October. Jeff and Rachel were both flying that day so I got to represent the pilots. Looks good on her, but I still prefer it longer.

Case turned and set his tray on the table, trying to rid himself of the vision of being spooned against her, her long hair splayed across the pillow, engulfing him in its scent and feel.

Maybe William Davis the Third likes it short.

Enough! Why can’t I get over her? Seeing her even occasionally dredges it up – all those memories – all the happiness until she destroyed it. King Lear had it right, ‘That way madness lies; let me shun that.’

As he turned from Anastasia he caught Vika staring daggers at her.

She did the same thing at the Board meeting in October. Case had an uneasy feeling that Vika knew the details of the breakup.

Cassandra kept a neutral expression as she watched the interaction.

It’s not like Anastasia and I hid our relationship. It had to be pretty obvious, at least to the Austin staff, that we had ceased to be a couple when she was no longer waiting for me in her office at the hangar when I arrived. Air-Bytes is a small organization and the news certainly traveled fast. Vika probably heard the rumors at first, but she was only one of two people who’d asked.

Case remembered the day clearly. Vika had flown with him to meet with a potential customer in Boise the day after the Board meeting. Not long after they left Austin, when they had reached cruising altitude and the plane was trimmed to his liking, she had turned to him and asked, ‘You’re not seeing Anastasia any longer, are you?’ He kept his attention to the front and just replied, ‘No, I’m not.’ Vika, wisely, did not press for details.

Case draped his battered leather flight jacket over the back of the chair before sitting.

“So, Cassandra, what’s so important that it brings the CEO and the CFO to visit, especially this close to Christmas?”

With just a hint of a smile she said, “Case, it’s nice to see you too.”

Cassandra wasn’t just the CEO but also a friend, so he tamped his impatience and responded in the same vein.

“Always nice to see you Cassandra, and you, too, Anastasia, and of course Vika. You’re all looking well, and I’m fine. Now that we’ve caught up...” He looked at his chronometer. “I have a flight to catch in ninety minutes. What’s up?”

Cassandra smiled. His comment even elicited a slight smile from Vika. He didn’t look at Anastasia. She was still standing off to his right.

“Okay, so much for small talk. Case, as you know, over the last couple of months we’ve had some interest from various places about a buyout.”

Seeing Anastasia had dampened his appetite, but he knew he needed to eat. Spooning stew into his mouth, he nodded.

“This morning Anastasia met with the Duncan Group in Dallas and received a serious offer. Actually it’s the third we’ve received from them. Management rejected the first two, knowing they were just testing the waters, and if they were really interested they’d up the ante. That’s why we haven’t brought it to the investors and Board until now.”

“And?”

“Angus Duncan is a shrewd investor and very successful. He usually stays in the background, but in this case he’s taking the lead.”

Vika turned her tablet and showed him a photo. He looked like a tough old bird.

Case buttered some of the warm cornbread and waited for Cassandra to continue.

“His weak spot is his son Jack. Jack is a forty-six-year-old professional failure, who collects exotic cars and Playmates of the month, and has been in and out of several businesses and costly marriages. Daddy continues to bankroll him though, maybe just to keep him busy and out of his hair. Regardless, Jack now wants to own an airline.”

“And what part of what we do equates to being an airline?”

Air-Bytes has airplanes.”

“Oh right. Hadn’t thought of that...”

Cassandra gave him an indulgent smile. “Nevertheless, daddy has made us a cash offer we can’t refuse.”

Case stopped eating. “And why the hell not refuse? We’re in the black now and in a position to grow. We’ve built - you’ve built - a fine organization and each of us is proud to wear this logo.” He pointed to his shirt. “To turn it over to some spoiled rich kid is idiotic. What do Rachel and Jeff say?”

Cassandra seemed taken aback by his outburst. “Case, Jeff and Rachel agree with the other investors. We should sell.”

He shook his head. “I’m surprised. This whole thing was Rachel’s idea. She put together the business plan, and with your mother’s help she sold it to the investors, and we were up and flying in record time as these things go because of the hard work of a lot of people, especially you, Cassandra. We’re unique and lots of companies rely on us to get their stuff delivered to the right people on time. Want to walk me through the thinking behind this decision?”

She paused for a few seconds, formulating her answer.

“Case, we stay in the black because we’re a bare bones operation. We absolutely need to hire another pilot – that is hire, not someone under contract” she looked at Vika, “who comes in when one of you three can’t fly, but a salaried position.” Vika started to say something but Cassandra cut her off. “Vika, I know you’d be willing to come on board and work the kind of hours Case and Jeff and Rachel do because you love this little startup, but that’s not the answer.”

He started to protest but Cassandra held up her hand. “I’m not finished. We need more planes and pilots to open new routes, which we can’t afford right now. There are more than rumors that other groups have seen our success, and if they can’t buy us out they’ll get in the business themselves and kill us off. FedEx and UPS have noticed. We’re small fry but we’re cutting into their business.”

“Case, ask yourself how much longer you and Jeff and Rachel can keep up this pace. Admit it: as much as you love to fly, it’s a grind. Jeff and Rachel want to add to their family and spend more time with little Andrew and each other. God knows Noah and I would like to spend more time together, and Noah has decided he’s going to leave the Marines when his obligation is complete. It’s more than likely that within a year we will be relocating, most likely to Texas or Oklahoma.”

Case was surprised at the news.

Guess I shouldn’t be. It makes perfect sense that Jeff and Rachel would want something other than being constantly in the air, and for Cassandra and Noah, the demands on both of them keeps them apart too much already. They also recognize the threat of deployment always looming for Noah.

Cassandra reached across and touched his hand. With a slight smile to take away the sting, she said, “And Case, don’t you get tired of living out of a suitcase with your address as Air-Bytes Hangar, Austin?”

He stared at her for a few seconds. “So what you’re saying is that, aside from me, management and staff have real lives outside Air-Bytes?

Cassandra just nodded.

He sat stunned. I used to have a girlfriend and what I considered a life. What can I say? She’s right. I don’t have a life. I don’t own anything but a motorcycle and a few clothes hanging in a closet here in Orange County and at the apartment at the hangar in Austin. What the hell will I do if we sell out? More like, when we sell.

Cassandra turned to Anastasia, “Anastasia has been handling the negotiations and has also prepared a spread sheet that shows the return on initial investment if this deal goes through.”

They turned to look at her. Today she was wearing one of her power suits - a dark blue skirt and jacket over a cream silk blouse. Anastasia was also one of the original investors. Like the rest of management, she didn’t draw a salary, but she; like Cassandra and Vika, had family money.

No matter what happens with Air-Bytes there’s no danger she will have to go without certain essentials like an expensive condo in Austin, bespoke suits, annual trips to Milan, Monolo Blahniks, and a new Mercedes convertible.

Stop it!

Case knew much of the credit for the rapid start-up and success of Air-Bytes was due to the tenacity and hard work of Anastasia. She was very competitive, and he had watched her with admiration as she and Cassandra convinced investors that Rachel’s vision could be successful. She and Cassandra played good cop – bad cop as they bullied or cajoled to get things moving and force hard decisions.

Most of the time her public face is that of a successful lawyer and the CFO of Air-Bytes, but tonight she looks tired and a bit rumpled. Probably because this morning she was in Dallas meeting with Duncan and now she’s twelve-hundred miles, a three hour flight and two time zones west. What’s so important that she had to fly out here, that Cassandra couldn’t handle?

Suddenly the penny dropped. Uh-oh, this has to do with me. She came all this way because she-they want something from me above and beyond my approval of the sale.

“Case under the terms of this offer your shares are worth close to two million.”

Two million! Guess I won’t be washing airplanes in Augusta and living on the farm.

“But that’s crazy.”

“Yes it is, but that’s what’s on the table, and all cash. I gave Jeff and Rachel the name of an excellent tax attorney in Austin, and will be happy to pass it on to you. She’s a former classmate and very sharp.”

“Damn,” he said softly. Then added, “So when would this happen?”

“We’re looking at the first of March but there are still some details to work out.”

“Of course, the details...” Here it comes...

Anastasia ignored the sarcasm. “Under the terms of the proposed buyout agreement, all employees would have to agree to stay on for ninety days after the new owners take over. That’s not really a problem. After that those who choose to stay, or are selected to stay, will get a signing bonus.”

He looked over at Cassandra. “I’m guessing that doesn’t include the CEO.”

Cassandra nodded keeping her expression neutral. “For the most part they want their own management team in place the day they take over.”

“Idiots.”

Anastasia stayed silent. Case suspected that decision was not unusual, but it was a mistake on the part of the new owners.

Cassandra has to feel bad about that, but she borrowed money from her trust fund to buy in so a few million should help her get over it.

“How about you, Anastasia?”

“They’ve asked me to stay during the transition, but then I’m gone too.”

Case wanted to make some crack about indispensable lawyers who were also bean-counters, but held his tongue. It was obvious that Cassandra and Anastasia were waiting for a response to the proposal. It didn’t take him long to decide.

That was too easy. They’ve offered me the bait – two million. There’s a hook in here somewhere.

“Casandra, the two of you aren’t here to get me to agree to stay for the ninety days – that’s a given and you know it. So what’s the real agenda?”

Cassandra looked a bit uncomfortable. “Case, neither Rachel or Jeff will stay after the first ninety days...”

“And?”

Cassandra looked at Anastasia. “Anastasia, you did the negotiations, perhaps you could explain.”

What’s the matter Cassandra, afraid to give me the bad news, so you’re pawning it off on Anastasia?

“Case, there’s more to it...” Anastasia paused, obviously gathering her thoughts. “Part of the proposed agreement is that you will stay for a year.”

The hook! Now I know why she’s here and why they were so quick to mention the money.

“What? Why on earth would I want to stay and work for these bozos?”

“They want to make you senior pilot and...”

“What in blazes is a senior pilot? We all fly the same routes.”

“Among other things, they want you to be the face of Air-Bytes.” He started to interrupt. She held up her hand. “Please, let me finish.”

Case nodded. Face of Air-Bytes? What bullshit!

“Case, you’d no longer be flying the routes, at least not very much. The new owners see the senior pilot as someone who supervises and trains the four or five new pilots they hire, or should I say, you hire. They also want the senior pilot to advise them on new routes – that is, weather, airports, and facilities, just like you did when we were starting up.”

He couldn’t stop a rush of memories – overnights to potential cities, sometimes with Cassandra, sometimes with Anastasia, - flying commercial since they didn’t have planes yet. Case evaluated outlying smaller airfields while Cassandra or Anastasia talked to potential clients. Soon he and Anastasia were sharing a hotel room. He’d fallen hard and quickly.

Stop! Stop!

Anastasia moved so she was standing behind Cassandra, “They’ve even taken an option on a lease for an office building adjacent to Austin-Bergstrom International as corporate headquarters.”

He was surprised, thinking about the cramped offices in their hangar at Austin.

She added, “Duncan and his group have already put in a conditional order with the leasing company for six new TBM 930s.”

He shook his head. “Six huh? The 930s are really a step up. I guess these guys are serious.”

“Yes they are, and I’ve negotiated a starting salary for you of two hundred thousand a year.”

The bait ball around that hook just got bigger!

“Are you serious? Why on earth would they pay that much?”

“Because you’ll be earning it. Furthermore, you know all the routes and all our people across the system, and you will provide the necessary continuity. Also, I believe Mr. Duncan sees you as a stabilizing influence on his son, Jack.”

Just what I need to be: a babysitter to some forty- something playboy. Case kept his thoughts to himself.

“It gets better. Your signing bonus will be fifty thousand - twenty-five thousand up front and the rest at six months.”

All this money to assuage your guilty conscience, Anastasia? Enough!

Anastasia’s put together a sweetheart deal especially for me. That guy Duncan is no pushover, so she had to work for every dollar she got out of the guy regardless of how much he spoils his son, but why do I feel uneasy about how this whole thing’s being presented?

Case shook his head, trying to come to grips with what Anastasia had laid out for him, the remainder of his dinner forgotten. “So right now this whole deal is pretty much contingent on me saying I’ll stay for a year, right?”

“That’s what it comes down to, yes,” Anastasia said neutrally.

He looked down into his now-empty coffee cup. I’d like to tell Duncan and his son to shove it, but I won’t do that to the hard-working staff across the system, or Rachel, Jeff, Cassandra, or even Anastasia. They do have lives. Cassandra’s right, I don’t. A year from the takeover date I’ll be just past my thirtieth birthday, and if I walk away then I’ll have a pile of money - more than I ever dreamed possible. What’s another twelve months? Plus my first pilot hire is sitting across the table from me. The alternative is I lose my friends and the whole thing might go bust and a lot of good people lose their jobs, plus we lose every penny we’ve sunk into Air-Bytes. I’ve swallowed the bait and the hook is set...

Case sat back looking at Cassandra and then at Anastasia. Unsmiling, he said, “Okay. I’ll do it.”

Cassandra let out a breath and Anastasia looked relieved. “Thank you Case.” Cassandra nodded to Anastasia, who retrieved some papers from her leather briefcase and handed them to her. She looked at them for a few seconds, then handed them across.

He examined the documents for a moment, then looked across the table at Cassandra and then up at Anastasia, who was still standing behind her. “I’m disappointed and a bit sad that the two of you – with all we’ve been through with Air-Bytes – decided you needed to double team me about this.”

They looked puzzled, and when Cassandra tried to say something he waved her down. “I thought both of you knew me well enough to understand that people always come first. Anastasia, you fly 1200 miles to wave a bunch of money at me, even though you...”

He paused, and looked at Cassandra, “The two of you know damn well it’s never been about the money. I fly for Air-Bytes because the people of this little company are a pleasure to work with. The fact I get to fly is an added bonus. And to top it all off, I’m the last to hear about this buy-out even though it appears my consent is essential. Why is that? Am I such an ogre that you couldn’t have included me in a conference call like the one I expect you had with Rachel and Jeff and the other principals?”

Steaming, he stopped and gathered his thoughts. Cassandra and Anastasia, looking chagrinned, stayed silent. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Vika slowly nod – her face an unsmiling mask.

“Even without including me in the conference call, which by the way really hacks me off, we could have done this whole thing over the phone; ‘Case we’ve received a firm buyout offer and wanted to discuss it with you. The big guys are making serious noises about competition to undercut us, which will either put us out of business or hurt us to the point where they pick us up for a song. To keep Air-Bytes flying and preserve the jobs for our people we need to seriously consider this offer.’

“Instead, you insult me by treating me like I’m just some investor, telling me about all the money I’m going to get from this deal. On top of that you dangle this ‘senior pilot’ BS in front of me. Sure the money is great, but the two of you need to understand that contrary to what they teach in the business program at Stanford or Harvard, it isn’t always about the money. I know the names of every employee in Air-Bytes and in most cases the names of their spouses and children. Do you?”

Cassandra sat stone-faced, never having seen this side of the always affable Case Reynolds. Anastasia shifted uncomfortably.

“Cassandra, you’ve visited all of our satellite offices several times. During start up you spent a great deal of time hiring and organizing the staff, but do you ever just hang out with them? I know the answer – you grab an Uber and head for a meeting with customers or potential customers. Over the last few months you’ve let yourself get bogged down with the paperwork so Vika goes in your place. I know she’s perfectly capable, but you’ve lost touch with your people as you’ve become more and more focused with the balance sheet.”

He turned to Anastasia. “Anastasia, didn’t your Harvard MBA caution that management shouldn’t lose touch with the employees? Considering we have fewer than fifty employees that’s inexcusable, you should have given Cassandra better advice, rather than keeping her buried in minutiae.”

Both women had trouble meeting his gaze.

“I just have one other point to make and then I’ll shut up. Both of you come from money, which means you’ve never had to worry about your next paycheck, or if you can afford to pay the rent or put food on the table. Our people come from a different world. For many, going without a paycheck is a hardship. For most, working for Air-Bytes is the best job they’ve ever had. I’m sure there’s not a person in this organization who couldn’t now find a better-paying job, but they stay because they’re treated fairly and are given a level of responsibility most have not had before.”

Both Anastasia and Cassandra seemed to find the table top of great interest.

“The two women who so ably run this office were living hand to mouth in a broken down trailer near Austin when you hired them, Cassandra. Have you forgotten that? Come to think of it, have you ever invited them to your home, which is just thirty miles down the road?”

She looked stricken as she slowly shook her head.

“Think about it - without Josie,” he pointed to the door which led to the hangar, “and Mike and his crew in Austin, our planes would be going nowhere. Without all those people in our offices across the system, like Rose, who keep us in operation seven days a week, Air-Bytes would be going nowhere!”

In the silence that followed he quickly scanned the short documents, surprised at the lack of legalese, then took a pen from his shirt pocket and rapidly scribbled his name on the three copies. Vika produced a notary book and seal and notarized each, then took a photo with her phone of each page and sent the documents to Case.

That’s it – ‘done and dusted’ as my Afghani friend Aarash would say in his best British public school accent.

He frowned. The memory was sharp as yesterday - nursing that stricken Super Tucano – trying to concentrate despite the blood loss and using all his skills to stay in the air just a little longer so he could get Aarash back to the base.

He shook his head willing the memory away. It was his turn to stare at the table top.

His thoughts were interrupted as Cassandra finally found her voice. “You’re right. I’ve lost touch. I’m sorry I got so bound up with the minutiae that seemed so important that I lost sight of what’s important. And I apologize to you as a friend for treating you like some investor who is only chasing a return. I know better, but please don’t forget that I’m new at this and so is Anastasia.”

Seemingly deflated, Anastasia took a seat at the table.

“Running Air-Bytes was our first job, and despite all the business classes and all the flow charts and binary decision diagrams, Venn diagrams, and Pareto charts, we were woefully unprepared to manage people. Anastasia is a wiz with numbers and contracts, and basically I’m a salesperson. I just want to close a deal and sign up new customers. We were fortunate that we had you and Rachel and Jeff who were out there every day meeting with our people.” She smiled slightly. “And getting to know them and the names of their spouses and children.” Cassandra looked over at Vika. “And you too Vika. I’ll bet you know every employee.”

Vika looked a little embarrassed, but then nodded toward Case. “Cassandra, I learned from the best. Case doesn’t have a business degree, he’s an engineer.” She paused, smiling at him. “Supposedly the nerdiest of professions, but he knows people.”

Her smile and gentle words seemed to lessen the tension, and even elicited tenuous smiles from Anastasia and Cassandra.

After a moment Cassandra added, “Case I’m doubly sorry because you are one of a very small group of people I admire and I would hate to lose our friendship. Those I admire have one very important thing in common: each of you was tested under the worst circumstances and you didn’t fail the people who depended on you. I shouldn’t have to be reminded that you will always look after your people first.”

‘Tested under the worst circumstances?’ How’d she get that information? Didn’t fail? Ask Aarash – oh wait, he can’t answer.

He glanced at Vika, who didn’t look surprised by Cassandra’s statement. Of course she knows – what Cassandra knows, Vika knows.

Anastasia showed no reaction – She’s seen the scars.

He fought the memory of the first time they’d made love and afterwards how she had traced those scars with her fingers before kissing each one. He had never told her how he came by those injuries and she didn’t ask. He didn’t talk about his service. It wasn’t anyone else’s business, although his awards were probably public records somewhere.

Cassandra watched him expectantly. He’d never seen her look so uncertain.

Getting himself under control, he said calmly, “Cassandra, apology accepted.” And now for some fence mending. “I’ll do my best to keep Rachel’s dream alive when the Duncan Group takes over, and perhaps I can teach Jack Duncan a thing or two. I’m sorry for spouting off. It’s been a long day and this has all come as quite a shock.” He smiled slightly and was rewarded with a fond smile from Cassandra.

This slight rapprochement was interrupted by the buzzing of Anastasia’s phone. She looked at it and said, “Duncan,” before answering.

“Hello Mr. Duncan.” She listened for a few seconds and replied, “I’m flying back to Dallas tonight and I’ll bring the originals to you first thing in the morning. Will ten work for you?”

She paused, listening. “Yes sir, I’ll see you then.” Anastasia looked surprised and handed the phone to Cassandra. “He wants to talk to you.”

Cassandra took the phone. “This is Cassandra Cavanaugh.” She listened for what seemed a long time.

Wonder what he wants with Cassandra? Maybe he’s figured out it’s a mistake to cut her loose.

His mind wandered as he waited for Cassandra to finish her call. Cassandra’s right – they’ve never held a job before. They’ve learned all the buzz-words and theory from books and professors who might never have held a job, and then they were thrust into management of Air-Bytes. Maybe I should feel bad about unloading on Cassandra and Anastasia, but they needed to hear it, and damn, sometimes you just need to be the bad guy even though Cassandra’s never seen me angry or heard me so much as raise my voice, which makes it all the more tough on her. I’ll have to do some more fence mending with her.

Anastasia? Well, she got both barrels not all that long ago, but with good reason. I’ve wondered since how and when she was going get around to telling me I was just a diversion...

He tried to push the memory of that terrible day aside. He’d confronted her in her office at the hangar in Austin and thrown the anonymous letter with the news clippings from the Dallas Morning News onto her desk and said some pretty harsh things before storming out.

Get a grip! That’s over and done.

Then he heard Cassandra say, “Yes, I’ll consider it, and I’ll let you know by tomorrow. I appreciate the offer.”

Cassandra returned the phone to Anastasia, who looked at her quizzically.

“Duncan’s asked me to stay on for six months after the hand-over, and I expect he’ll make you the same offer when he sees you tomorrow. I think he realizes that Jack is just not up to running Air-Bytes, at least for now.”

Anastasia looked at Cassandra for a few seconds. She doesn’t seem surprised. Actually she just looks tired. “Sounds like you’re going to take it.”

“I’ll talk it over with Noah tonight, but I’m inclined to do it.” Cassandra turned to Case, “I can help you take care of our people...”

It was his turn to nod. The room was very quiet. Anastasia busied herself with some files from her briefcase and her tablet, while Vika sat back and appeared to be deciding if she liked this new Case Reynolds or not. He had to stifle a laugh when she gave a quick smile and winked.

Well, I’ve made my point so from here on I’ll keep quiet. Cassandra and Jeff and Rachel are my friends and I don’t want to lose them. I really hope my new employers aren’t jerks. So, what am I going to do with all the money I’m about to get? Buy a sports car? Unattached pilot and sports car – what a cliché, and I’ve already got a motorcycle. I think I’ll pass. A slightly used F-150 is more my style anyway, and some money to Mom and Dad for Chloe’s tuition. A house in Austin would be nice so I can stop being a Gypsy. Something I’ll have to think about during my down time over the holidays. Maybe a plane?

“Anastasia, what’s going to happen to our 900s?”

She looked relieved at the change of topic.

“The leasing company will take them back, and since the new owners are ordering 930s they won’t penalize them for terminating the lease early. Considering the number of hours and cycles on the aircraft they might just auction them. Why?”

“Maybe I’d like to buy one.”

“Even used they’d be...” Her voice trailed off.

Anastasia sat back with a thoughtful look. When she finally spoke her tone was all business. “Case, the leasing company might not want to sell just one, but if they could find a buyer for all three...”

Cassandra suddenly looked interested. “Anastasia, give me a call tomorrow after you meet with Duncan. I think Case is on the right track. We’ll discuss putting together a proposal to some of the current investors to reinvest in a new corporation that would offer to buy the airplanes. The leasing company might accept a pretty low offer just to have them off their books.”

Anastasia nodded as she made some notes on her tablet.

Cassandra paused for a few moments, also making notes on her tablet. When she looked up she said, “Who knows what kind of bargain someone might be able to get. We have a non-compete clause, but if we structured it right, say if the RCCA and J Flying School and Charter of Austin Texas wanted to pick up three high-hour airplanes they might get a good deal.”

RCCA and J?” Case asked.

“The Rachel, Cassandra, Case, Anastasia and Jeff Flying School and Charter.”

She looked relieved when he chuckled, and said, “I might be interested, but my name has to go before yours!”

He glanced at Anastasia. She looks pleased to be included. Despite how I feel about her it’s a good idea and if structured right I’d have access to a 900. Wouldn’t that be sweet!

In the silence that followed he made a show of looking at his chronometer and then turned to Vika. “Vika, would you mind running me over to the passenger terminal?”

She beamed. “I’d be happy to. Whenever you’re ready.”

He stood, grabbing his jacket from the back of the chair. “Thanks. I need to throw some things in a bag but I’ll be ready in about ten.”

Vika stood, slipped on her jacket and came around the table and took his tray. He noticed she was wearing a skirt and knee-high boots along with her turtleneck.

With the heels she’s probably at six feet or a little more, and in that outfit she looks like every male pilot’s dream of a sexy co-pilot. I should take her picture and use it to recruit the new pilots – they’d be beating down my door!

Suddenly the thought of Vika surrounded by a bunch of young single guys made him pause.

Maybe she’s not too young for me, and she does feel good when she hugs me and gives me those brief kisses.

Vika interrupted his musings. “I’ll take this back to the kitchen and then meet you at the bedroom.” She purred. “Maybe I can help you pack.”

What are you up to, Vika? Sounds suspiciously like, ‘In your face, Anastasia.’

He smiled in response. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Anastasia frown.

Yup, that’s exactly what Vika’s doing and she got the reaction she wanted. Vika making a run at me is no longer your concern, Anastasia.

A smirking Vika turned to Cassandra. “Anything else you need for tonight?”

“No, and thank you, Vika.”

Vika nodded and smiled broadly at Case as she left the room, pointedly ignoring Anastasia.

He turned to Cassandra, who wore a thoughtful expression. “Anything from me, Cassandra?”

She shook her head, but smiled and said, “Thank you, Case ... for everything.”

He turned to Anastasia. “Anastasia?”

The frown had been replaced by a look of sadness. It appeared she wanted to say something, but after a moment she changed her mind and shook her head.

As he started for the door Cassandra called after him, “Merry Christmas, Case.”

He turned. “Merry Christmas, Cassandra ... and Merry Christmas, Anastasia.” He stood for a moment wrestling with his feelings and finally said, “Anastasia, thank you for your hard work on this. I may not agree with the decision to sell but I do appreciate what you’ve done for me and for Air-Bytes.

Surprised, and with just a hint of a smile she responded softly, “You’re welcome, Case.”


Vika Vishnevsky stood in the doorway of the bedroom the pilots used when they were at Orange County. Besides a queen bed the room had a comfortable armchair, a desk, and a chest of drawers. She held a box wrapped in red Christmas paper as she watched the tall sandy-haired pilot quickly and expertly pack his sage green Air Force duffle.

I wonder what he’d do if I tackled him and we somehow ended up on the bed. Would he finally figure it out and kiss me properly? Too blatant? Maybe that’s what it’s going to take – I’ve certainly given him enough hints!

She stifled a giggle at that image. He looked up from his packing and smiled. Her heart beat a little faster.

I just love it when he smiles at me.

“Thanks for agreeing to drop me at the passenger terminal.”

“I’m happy to do it. By the way, if you get bored in Lodi, the invitation is still open to spend some time at my parents’ home. There’s plenty of room and you’ve seen the pool – you could swim laps there as much as you want. Plus my parents always enjoy your visits.”

And if the house is too crowded over the holidays you can just bunk with me!

Vika stepped into the room and held out the box. “Merry Christmas.”

He looked surprised but smiled as he examined her for a few moments.

If he keeps that up I’m going to melt.

Case tore away the wrapping and lifted the lid to the narrow box. He hesitated for a few moments before lifting the creamy white scarf. Holding it in both hands he said, “It’s beautiful. Thank you.”

“My mother has a friend who makes them. Its silk and cashmere. Try it on.”

He casually draped the long scarf around his neck.

She shook her head and smiled as she moved closer. “What kind of pilot are you that you don’t know how to wear a silk scarf?”

He grinned and shrugged. “Guess that’s one of those things they never mentioned in the pilot’s handbook.”

Vika reached up and took the scarf from his neck. Stepping back slightly she doubled it and placed it around his neck again, pulling the end through the loop caused by the doubling and bringing the knot close to his neck. During this process she moved so their bodies were touching.

I’m glad I stopped to refresh my perfume. I know he likes it – he’s commented on it before.

As she smoothed the scarf she raised her arms until they were around his neck.

Now or never, Vika.

Tossing uncertainties aside, she tightened her arms, pressed her body against him, and kissed him thoroughly. After a moment he put his arms around her and responded with an enthusiasm that surprised her.

Oh my God! I’m kissing Case Reynolds and he’s kissing me like he means it and it’s so much better than I imagined. He feels so good and he’s a fantastic kisser. I should have done this sooner. Wow!

They stood like that for a couple of minutes enjoying the sensations, but eventually Case broke the kiss.

No, no, no, not yet! Vika opened her eyes to a bemused smile. Case had broken the kiss but still held her. It was a good thing considering her legs had turned to rubber.

“Passenger terminal?”

She shook her head as she tightened her grip and pulled in closer. “We’ve plenty of time...”

He shook his head and as he did so he appraised her with those gray eyes that were usually so placid. Now they were filled with something else – the calm replaced by a tempest? The intensity of his gaze made her squirm.

She returned his gaze. “Unless you can’t take the heat.”

“You know little girls who play with fire can get burnt.” His voice was husky.

“I’ll take the chance ... and I’m no longer a little girl...”

“I’ve noticed.”

“Took you long enough.”

This time he kissed her.

After a couple of minutes he broke the kiss and gently took her arms from around his neck, but continued to hold her hands. “Vika, I’ll be back soon and I promise to call while I’m gone. I think we have a few things to talk about.”

She smiled. Maybe I’ll run away to Lodi. I don’t know if I can go the whole Christmas break without more of these!

Finally she said, “I’ll be waiting to talk to you, and don’t be surprised if I call you.”

“I’d like that.”

She moved close again and smoothed the scarf against his chest and then kissed him lightly. “Now you look like a real aviator.” Somehow her arms reached around his neck again and he reciprocated by putting his arms around her. Vika put her head on his shoulder, just enjoying the closeness and the smell of Case Reynolds.

He glanced at their reflection in the long mirror on the closet door and said with a smile, “I think you’re right, silk scarf, beat up leather flight jacket, holding a beautiful woman.”

Vika felt herself blushing. He just said I’m beautiful.

“I feel like Errol Flynn getting ready to head out on dawn patrol.”

She smiled as she watched their reflection.

We look good together.

She turned back and looked up at him. “No, not Errol Flynn. You’re Jimmy Stewart ready to solo the Atlantic.”

He smiled. “Jimmy Stewart, huh?”

“And for your information Jimmy Stewart was a real aviator, who like you, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.”

Ooops. She saw the brief flash of annoyance when she mentioned his decoration but it quickly dissipated and she let out her breath when he smiled.

“I take that comparison as a compliment, but other than being about the same height and both aviators I don’t think I could ever measure up to him.” He examined her face for a few seconds. “If I’m Jimmy Stewart then you must be Grace Kelly.”

“Why thank you kind sir...” She paused, thinking about the pairing, and frowned. “Wait, you’re not comparing us to Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly in Rear Window?”

He grinned. “Exactly, beautiful young blonde woman pursues much older man...”

Now Vika laughed. “Case Reynolds you’re exactly six years eight months and ... and...” she stopped to think “and three days older than I am! Not exactly a much older man!”

It was his turn to laugh. “Vika, is there anything you don’t know about me?”

You might be surprised at all the things I do know about you Case Reynolds and now I know you’re an amazing kisser! I can’t wait to find out all the other things you’re good at besides flying of course!

“Oh I’m sure there are lots of things I don’t know. Maybe I need to have a chat with your sister in Lodi!”

“Please no...” he chuckled.

He looked at his watch and frowned. “We really do have to go.”

“Oh, very well.” She hugged him again, stepped back slightly and touched his face. “I’m missing you already.”

He gently kissed her forehead and released her. “Oh, I almost forgot.”

He turned and reached into his flight bag on the bed and pulled out a small box wrapped in silver foil. He handed it to her and said, “Merry Christmas.”

She was surprised and pleased. He got me something for Christmas! I guess he has been thinking about me and cares enough find a gift even as busy as he is. Maybe he does care about me. She examined the box and swallowed a giggle. Too big for an engagement ring!

Vika pulled off the paper and uncovered a white box. Inside, nestled in black velvet was a silver key ring with a miniature TCM 900 attached by a braided silver chain.

“Oh, Case ... its beautiful!” she gushed as she examined the intricately detailed silver airplane. Also attached was a polished silver disc that had her initials in script. “Thank you!” Vika flung herself at him and kissed him.

Oblivious to anything but each other, neither of them heard the footsteps in the hall. Anastasia stopped so abruptly at the open door that Cassandra ran into her. Before the furious woman could charge into the room Cassandra grabbed her arm and pulled her along the passageway that led into the hanger and then to the parking lot.

Vika regretfully disengaged, knowing she had to get him to the passenger terminal. Fortunately it was only a five minute drive on the airport access road.

He looked a little stunned with her latest onslaught.

That will have to hold you until you get back, Mr. Case Reynolds. Give you something to think about!

“I guess we should go.”

He smiled and nodded. “Uh, huh. We should.”

Vika hesitated for a moment and then said, “You know I’ll be applying for one of the pilot positions with the new Air-Bytes. Do you think I have a chance, Mr. Senior Pilot?” she said teasingly.

He grinned. “I would recommend you talk to Ms. Vishnevsky, assistant to Ms. Cavanaugh and set up an appointment for ... an in depth interview with the Senior Pilot.”

She flushed. “An ‘in-depth interview?’” She lightly touched his chest as she looked up at him. “How should I prepare?”

He stepped back slightly and looked her over.

“Well, I think what you’re wearing right now might be appropriate ... first impressions and all...”

“Oh, you like it? I mean you think the Senior Pilot might like it?” She felt her face glowing.

“He’d be a fool not to...”


Cassandra stopped as they reached the parking lot and turned to Anastasia. “Are you done?”

It was easy to see her look of chagrin as they stood under the bright lights.

“Thank you for pulling me out of there before I made a fool of myself. All of a sudden I just saw red. I was a bit upset...”

“A bit? You’ve been ranting about Vika in at least three languages since I grabbed you. I’ve never seen that side of you.”

“Oh, sorry. Sometimes ... rarely, my Irish temper overcomes my Russian reticence.” She tried to smile but it was fleeting.

“The breakup with Case has to be hard, but...”

Anastasia interrupted, “But why does it have to be Vika?”

Cassandra considered her answer for a few seconds. “Because she’s here and she’s determined. She’s had a crush on Case since the day they met, and since you two called it quits...”

“We didn’t call it quits; he broke up with me...” Anastasia didn’t finish that thought and said with surprise, “He didn’t tell you?”

Cassandra shook her head. “Case is a close friend, but as you know, he’s a very private person. So, no, he didn’t tell me. I do know it was sudden – one evening we had him to dinner and he was as happy as could be, a couple days later I happened to be at the hanger when he flew in and he wasn’t the same.”

They got into Cassandra’s SUV and she watched Anastasia pull a tissue from her coat pocket and wipe a tear.

Before starting the engine she turned to Anastasia and said, “Not long ago he was at the house and Case was helping me clean up after dinner – Noah had a call from the base so it was just the two of us in the kitchen. At that point I just asked him.”

Anastasia stared straight ahead and dabbed her eyes.

“He simply said, ‘irreconcilable differences.’”

Anastasia broke down and covered her face with her hands as she sobbed.

After a few moments Cassandra reached across and pulled Anastasia’s hands from her face, and then held her hands. “I know you and Case come from vastly different backgrounds, but I’ve seen you together. You loved him and he loved you. Actually I may be wrong using the past tense. Since your breakup I’ve seen you and Case in meetings and at the hangar at Austin and if tonight is any indication, I’m quite certain you still love him.”

Anastasia nodded looking miserable. “Will you let me explain?”

“Of course, but don’t feel like you should.”

“I need to tell someone and I can trust you.” Anastasia paused and took a deep breath. “While I was dating Case, I was engaged.”

“Oh...”

“I didn’t plan to fall in love with Case, it just happened. I’d never met a man like him...” She smiled fleetingly. “Except for your Noah of course, but he was already taken.”

Cassandra squeezed Anastasia’s hands, encouraging her to continue.

“I’m no longer engaged. Well before the breakup with Case I realized what a sham that engagement was. I should have broken it off a long time ago. My former fiancé is the son of a wealthy Dallas family and our families have known each other since I was little. Actually, my mother was my fiancé’s father’s lover for a number of years. Their pillow talk apparently benefited both families businesses.”

Casandra shook her head but kept silent.

“My mother and her lover decided I should marry the son and unite the families. When I was eighteen my father moved out and bought a ranch and now raises quarter horses. They never divorced – bad for business I guess. I have two older brothers, but to my mother’s disgust they married for love and sided with my father. They both have children and happy marriages, so that left me.”

Anastasia paused and rummaged in her purse and brought out a bottle of water. She took a long drink.

“My fiancé and I were thrown together as much as possible. We even dated when we were in college. He’s very handsome and a nice guy, but completely disinterested in taking over the family businesses. His passion is yachting. He travels the world and races his yachts and collects beautiful women. So when he and I were dating my mother and his father sat me down and told me the plan. I was to marry William and eventually take over, since William was incapable of doing that. At the time I was twenty and growing up to be as ambitious and greedy as my mother, so I agreed.”

Anastasia hung her head and slowly shook it. “I was a fool.”

She looked up. “But not such a fool to get married then. I made them wait until I got my MBA, and then I was accepted to law school, so I insisted that we wait until I graduated. During law school, every time I came home I became less enamored with the plan. I didn’t love William and he didn’t love me. I made the mistake of voicing my concerns to my mother one time and we had a tremendous fight. She explained that once I had a couple of children then I needn’t see William again and could do pretty much what I pleased with my love life as long as I was discrete. Unfortunately I caved, and after I graduated law school William and I were engaged.

“How very Victorian.” Cassandra said dryly.

Anastasia looked up sharply and countered, “Cassandra, you know this goes on all the time with wealthy families and has been for centuries.”

It was Cassandra’s turn to blush. “Yes.”

Anastasia continued, “At that point along came Air-Bytes. I told mother I couldn’t possibly get married while I was working to get Air-Bytes up and running – it was valuable experience for my future role. Mother didn’t like it but she accepted it.

“Then I met Case...” Anastasia stared into the distance and said softly, “I wasn’t supposed to fall in love.”

“Why didn’t you break off the engagement then?”

“That’s what I keep asking myself. I love Case and he said he loved me, so what was so hard about going to William and telling him the truth?” She shook her head. “Stupidly, I kept putting it off, not wanting to hurt William, and there never seemed to be a right time – he was out of the country a great deal and I wanted to make the break in person. It’s funny, but when I finally told William, he said he wasn’t surprised and was actually relieved.”

“Relieved?”

“Yes, he said he valued our friendship, but he just couldn’t imagine being married to me – I was too independent, too strong and too smart to put up with the life he envisioned for himself. He really didn’t want a wife – he just wanted to continue to be a playboy yachtsman and our families would just have to deal with it.”

“Too bad it’s not that simple.”

They sat quietly for a few moments. Cassandra finally asked, “So what caused Case to break it off?” Suddenly Cassandra knew the answer, and before Anastasia could reply she said, “Case discovered you were still engaged?”

Anastasia nodded.

“And he didn’t find out from you?”

“No, someone sent him a letter with an old clipping from the Dallas paper announcing my engagement to William, and another more recent clipping announcing my pending nuptials.”

“A wedding announcement?”

“Yes, someone planted that story. No date had ever been set.”

“Any idea who?”

“Of course – it was my mother.”

“And she wanted to sabotage your relationship with Case? But, how did she even know about that?”

“I told her.”

“What?”

“Yes, another stupid decision. I told her I was breaking it off with William and I was going to marry Case because I loved him.”

“I’ll bet that went over well.”

“Actually I was surprised. She seemed to take it well and even asked me about him. I should have known better.”

“Did you ever confront her?”

Anastasia looked at her. Even in the dimly lighted car Cassandra could see fire in her eyes. “Oh yes, and she proudly admitted it. She said, she couldn’t allow me to marry some crippled farm boy who had no future. I haven’t spoken to her since.”

In the silence that followed, both women were lost in thought. Anastasia wiped her eyes.

“And you’ve never explained all this to Case?”

Anastasia tearfully shook her head. “I’ll never forget that day. I was on the phone and he came into my office at the hangar with this look on his face like he’d experienced some tragedy. I wondered if something had happened to Jeff or Rachel or if he’d had problems with his airplane. He threw the engagement announcement on my desk. I thought I was going to faint. He asked if it was true that the whole time we’d been together I’d been engaged. I started crying and told him it was true but it didn’t mean anything and I had intended to break off the engagement, because I loved only him.”

Anastasia pulled out another tissue and wiped her eyes before continuing. “At that point I could see the anger building and then he said, ‘But you haven’t, have you?’ He then put the second clipping on my desk which announced the upcoming wedding date. I was shocked and I told him it was a fabrication, but he asked why he should believe anything I told him and he just walked away. The next thing I knew he was on his damn motorcycle riding away.”

“And you’ve never tried to talk to him – tried to explain under calmer circumstances?”

Staring into the distance, Anastasia shook her head.

“Why?”

Anastasia looked at her for a few seconds before responding. “I was angry and hurt...”

“Even though he was an innocent party who got caught up in a family dynamic he knew nothing about?”

“Yes,” she said softly. She was silent for a few moments. “I’m spoiled and selfish and I’ve never had a guy break up with me. I’m the one who did the breaking up, and I thought he was being unreasonable.”

“So, you still love Case but in your twisted reasoning it’s his fault you’re not together?”

Anastasia nodded.

“Anastasia, you’re the dumbest smart person I know.”

She put her head down. “You’re right, I’ve really screwed this up, but what should I do? He seems pretty much wrapped up with Vika now ... and she’s certainly made it clear she’s available.”

“Whatever’s going on with Vika is a recent development, and anyway Vika’s too young for him. I’m not convinced that what she feels for Case is anything but a crush.”

“But the way he was kissing her...”

“He’s a man being pursued by a beautiful young woman, what’s he supposed to do?”

“It still hurts.”

There was no more conversation until they reached the terminal. As Anastasia started to get out of the SUV, Cassandra caught her arm. “Anastasia, you asked me what you should do and here’s my advice for what it’s worth: go into the terminal and track him down – it’s not that big a place and you know he’s on an Alaska Air flight to Sacramento – he can’t get away. Sit him down and talk to him.”

Anastasia looked at her with hope in her eyes. “Do you think he’ll listen?”

“You’re the lawyer; give him the old razzle dazzle.”


Vika and Case arrived outside the Orange County terminal. She stood near him while he got his small duffle from the back of her almost new BMW SUV. Case caught his reflection in the rear hatch window – beat up leather jacket, white silk scarf. Jimmy Stewart huh? He was proud to wear that jacket and his Air Force pilot’s wings were embossed in silver over the left breast, even though a bit scuffed like the jacket.

Kind of like me, he thought ruefully.

Vika put her arms around his neck and kissed him with just enough passion to remind him what he was going to be missing. He dropped his duffle in order to put his arms around her.

After a couple of minutes they disengaged, although she still had her hands on his shoulders and his stayed around her waist.

Just then an older Orange County deputy walked up. He was grinning. “Sorry to break this up folks, but Miss, you’ve got to move you vehicle.”

Vika nodded and gave Case a brief kiss. “Merry Christmas, Case.”

“Merry Christmas, Vika.”

Case stood on the curb and watched her BMW disappear.

“I think that one might be a keeper.”

He nodded thoughtfully, agreeing with the deputy’s assessment.

The source of this story is Finestories

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