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Suck on that, gravity.
Sierra Carmody grinned as she watched a broad-winged hawk soar on a thermal twenty feet below the cockpit of the Bell 407. Maybe she was anthropomorphizing her ass off, but it seemed to her that the hawk loved being up here as much as she did.
All around her was the crisp, clear blue of a Montana summer sky, and below was a vast blanket of green and brown occasionally cut through with the snaking line of a road or railway or river. Even the mighty hulk of Copper Mountain was reduced to a plaything from up here, its rocky peak wreathed in fluffy white clouds.
Sierra flashed a smile at the man sitting beside her. Jack grinned back at her, his leathery skin creasing into deep lines.
“Perfect day for it,” he said, his voice tinny over the headset.
“Couldn’t be better,” Sierra agreed.
He turned his attention back to the instruments, his gaze assessing everything with the practiced ease of a helicopter pilot with thousands of flight hours under his belt.
She glanced at her watch, conscious that their passenger, Gideon Tate, was a stickler for being on time. She flicked the switch on the audio panel so he could hear her through his headset.
“Mr. Tate, we’re fifteen minutes out from the ranch. Should be landing right on time.”
“Good to know. Thanks, Sierra,” Gideon said.
She could see Gideon in the small mirror that Jack had retrofitted to the windshield frame for just that purpose, his head buried in his paperwork. The man never seemed to stop working.
She switched the comm back so she and Jack could talk without disturbing their passenger.
“Gideon wants me to collect something for him from Billings next week, if you’re up for another run?” Jack asked.
“Sure. Let me just make sure Jed and Casey don’t need me for anything, but that sounds great.” She bit back the urge to shower him with gratitude for thinking of her, knowing from experience that he would only become red-faced and brusque if she tried to acknowledge his generosity. Like always, she’d find some other way to show her appreciation for the extra flight hours—bringing him some fresh vegetables from the kitchen garden at home or taking on the task of putting the Bell into the hangar for the night.
Jack nodded, adjusting the cyclic to accommodate a crosswind that had just sprung up. She had no idea why she glanced in the mirror to check on their passenger. Maybe she’d heard something over the whir of the rotors or caught movement in her peripheral vision. Whatever it was, what she saw in the mirror had her reaching for her seat belt release.
“Jack. Gideon’s collapsed,” she said urgently.
Sierra pulled off her headset and twisted around, coming up onto her knees. Although the seats formed a solid bench across the front of the helicopter, there was enough space between the headrest and the ceiling for someone to squeeze through into the rear passenger area. She slithered over the seat in an awkward rush, her boot heels hitting the ceiling on the way over. Then she was on her knees beside Gideon’s too-still form, her fingers on his neck, searching for a pulse.
It was faint, but it was there—a delicate percussion beneath her fingertips. She snatched up Gideon’s headset so she could communicate with Jack.
“We’ll be at Marietta hospital in ten,” Jack said, his tone clipped. “What should I tell them?”
“His pulse is thready.” She rubbed her knuckles on Gideon’s sternum and his eyelids fluttered. “He’s semiconscious, and his breathing is shallow.”
The headset went dead and she guessed Jack had switched to external radio. She could feel the powerful growl of the motor as he banked left, then cranked up the speed. Her ears popped as the altitude rapidly decreased.
She concentrated on Gideon, checking his airway to make sure it was clear before releasing his seat belt and putting him into the recovery position across the rear seats. There was a blanket stowed under the forward seats and she yanked it out, spreading it over him to keep him warm. Then she sat on the floor so she could hold his hand, willing him to be okay.
He was only sixty-four. Far too young to die.
And he’d been kind to her—generous—despite the messy history between her family and his.
Or perhaps because of it.
She leaned close so he could hear her over the engine.
“Hang in there, Mr. Tate. We’ll be at the hospital soon.”
Maybe it was her imagination, but she could have sworn his fingers briefly tightened around hers.
The next ten minutes seemed to last an hour. Jack checked in on her continuously and she kept monitoring Gideon’s pulse, terrified he was going to stop breathing. She’d completed a comprehensive first aid course last year and she tried to remember the protocol for CPR. Was it thirty chest compressions to two rescue breaths or twenty?
Please don’t die. Please be okay.
“About to land,” Jack said over the headset and Sierra sent up a prayer of thanks to the universe.
The hospital’s helipad was on the roof and Sierra caught a glimpse of the luminescent “H” painted on the cement before the Bell touched down with a thud. A medical team stood at the ready beside the entrance, their uniforms flapping in the rotor wash. Sierra leaned across to release the passenger door and waved them over. Seconds later she was making herself as small as possible as the team crowded into the passenger cabin, utterly focused on their patient.
“Let’s get him oxygen,” a young blonde doctor ordered, her tone authoritative.
“Blood pressure is 180 over 120,” a male nurse said.
“We need to get him to resus. Let’s move, people,” the doctor ordered.
A trolley was wheeled over and Gideon was transferred with brisk efficiency. Then they raced toward the emergency entrance, the doctor leaning over Gideon’s still form.
Sierra let out the breath she didn’t even realize she’d been holding, more than a little overwhelmed.
“You okay?” Jack asked from the open doorway.
She nodded, and he held out his hand to help her exit. Her body felt stiff with tension as she slid to the edge of the seat and ducked her head to step down onto the rooftop.
“What do you think it was? A stroke?” she asked.
“Seems the most likely.” He passed a hand over his chin. “I need to call Nancy.”
Sierra’s gut tightened as she thought about Gideon’s family—his wife, Nancy, and his son, Garret. This was going to be a huge shock for them. “Can I help with anything?”
Jack shook his head, the gray in his faded red hair glinting in the afternoon sunlight. “I might be tied up for a bit, though. Reckon you can make your own way home from here?”
“I’ll call home,” Sierra said. “Don’t worry about me.”
She could see how heartsick Jack was and she gave him an impulsive hug. “You were awesome. No one could have got him here faster.”
He managed a sad smile before pulling out his phone. He stared down at the keypad for a long beat, then summoned up a number.
“Nancy? It’s Jack. I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news . . .”
Sierra moved away, giving him space to say what needed to be said. Pulling out her own phone, she dialed home.
It was stupid, but her eyes got hot with emotion when her oldest brother answered the phone.
“Jed, it’s me. I need you to come pick me up.”
The rain started when Garret Tate was just ten minutes out of Billings, slashing at the windscreen and overwhelming the wipers. He kept his foot on the gas anyway, conscious of the clock running down. He’d been in Rome on a work trip when his mother’s panicked, tearful call lit up his phone yesterday, and he’d been wrangling with travel companies and officialdom ever since.
He wasn’t about to slow down now, not when the doctors had indicated his father’s chances of surviving the next forty-eight hours were no better than fifty-fifty. His relationship with his father hadn’t been strong for a long time, but that didn’t mean Garret didn’t love him. That he didn’t care. That he didn’t want to say goodbye, if that was all there was left to do.
A truck blew past, throwing road dirt and more water at his rental sedan just as his phone came to life with a bright ring. His hands tightened on the steering wheel.
Was this The Call? Had he gotten this close to home only to be half an hour too late?
He hit a button on the steering wheel and his mother’s voice filled the car.
“Garret, I know you’re on the road. I just wanted to let you know Dr. Wilson said he’s happy with your father’s overnight results, so they’re going to reduce his sedation. With a bit of luck, he should be waking soon.”
Relief washed through him.
“Okay. Thanks for letting me know. I’m only about forty minutes away, give or take.”
“Be careful in this weather.”
“I will. See you soon.”
He had a ton more questions, but they could wait until he was face-to-face with his mother. The important thing was that his father was still alive and well enough for the doctors to start bringing him out of the medically induced coma they’d put him in to help him recover from the major stroke he’d experienced yesterday afternoon.
That was a huge step forward. Hopefully the first of many.
Another truck passed, and he redoubled his concentration on the road because no one needed him to end up in a ditch or worse right now. When he finally pulled into a parking spot at Marietta General half an hour later, the rain had slowed to a light pitter-patter and his shoulders and back were aching from the tension of his long journey home.
He climbed out of the car and rolled his neck as he strode toward the building. Minutes later he was being led to the waiting room in the intensive care unit by a middle-aged nurse.
His mother sprang to her feet from where she’d been sitting on one of the two couches in the small space, her eyes red from tears and lack of sleep.
“Garret.” She hugged him tightly, pulling away almost immediately as though she was afraid to let herself to take comfort for too long. “Thank you for coming so quickly.”
“As if I wouldn’t.”
“Well, I know you and your father have had your differences.” Her gaze was searching, and Garret wondered for the millionth time if she had any idea what had caused those “differences.” Sometimes he was convinced she knew—that she had to know—but then she’d do something or say something and he’d wonder all over again.
“Any more news?” he asked.
She shook her head, her blond bob brushing her shoulders. “They’ve been in with him for a while. Wouldn’t let me stay. They said they’ll assess him when he’s conscious, work out how much damaged he’s suffered . . . Garret, what if he’s not there anymore? What if the blood clot did so much damage he’s gone?”
She lifted a hand to push back her hair and he saw that it was trembling. For the first time in her life she looked every one of her sixty-two years, and he made a bet with himself that she hadn’t eaten or slept since she’d gotten news of her husband’s stroke. It had always been that way—Gideon always came first, above everything, including herself.
“We won’t know anything until they do the tests,” he said, aware he was offering her zero comfort. But he was in no position to offer reassurances or promises. It would be naive to believe his father was simply going to wake from sedation with all his faculties intact.
“I’ve been so scared something like this was going to happen,” his mother said. “He never stops working. Even when he plays golf he’s working, hustling for a contract or networking. I tried to talk him into slowing down but he never listens.”
Garret nodded, guilt biting at him. If he hadn’t chosen to walk away and forge his own path in Seattle, he would have been working at his father’s side at Tate Transport the last eight years, sharing some of the load, and maybe this wouldn’t have happened. Yes, he’d had good reasons for walking away, but right now, right this minute, they felt self-indulgent. Even self-righteous.
Movement drew his attention to the doorway as a tall silver-haired man in a well-cut navy suit appeared.
“You have to be Garret,” he said, offering his hand. “The family resemblance is powerful. Dr. Wilson, we spoken on the phone.”
“We did. Mom said you’ve been in with Dad?”
“I have. He’s conscious and a bit distressed. I’ve explained the situation to him, but it’s a lot to take in. I think he’d benefit from seeing his family for just a few minutes.”
His mother was already moving forward, hope on her face. Garret followed her across the corridor and into a single room where a couple of nurses were adjusting various machines around the bed. His father’s head was propped on a single pillow. There were oxygen prongs in his nose and a line snaking from the inside of his elbow to a drip stand. His face was pale despite his tan; his salt-and-pepper hair rumpled, and the right side of his face sagged noticeably.
“Gideon,” Garret’s mother said, rushing forward to take his father’s hand.
Garret was aware of his pulse pounding in his ears as he waited for his father to respond.
Come on, Dad. Please still be there.
Slowly his father turned his head toward his mother, his eyes cloudy with confusion.
That could just be the drugs. He’s probably high as a kite.
His father opened his mouth, but all that emerged was a slurred, garbled moan. His mother squeezed his hand, tears streaming down her cheeks.
“It’s okay, Gideon. I’m here. You’re okay,” she soothed.
His father attempted to speak again, but the words were so slurred they were unintelligible. It didn’t matter—Garret could hear the fear in his father’s voice, the terror.
Jesus, this was awful. All his life, his father had been a vital, unstoppable presence. A force of nature. To see him cut down like this . . .
Garret turned away, sucking in a deep breath.
Keep it together, asshole.
It took him a moment to gain control, then he turned back and stepped closer to the bed, standing at his mother’s shoulder.
“Hey, Dad,” he said, and his father’s gaze shifted to him.
There was no mistaking the recognition there, or the warmth.
“They’re taking good care of you, Gideon. It’s going to be all right. We’re going to get on top of this,” his mother said, stroking his arm lovingly.
Dr. Wilson moved forward. “Gideon, I’m going to need to run some tests now to see where we’re at, so I’m going to ask Nancy and Garret to step outside for a bit. But they’ll be back soon, I promise.”
Gideon’s gaze moved to his wife’s face. She lifted his hand and pressed a kiss to it, then moved closer and dropped another one onto his forehead.
“I love you,” she said softly, and there was so much tenderness in her voice Garret got a lump in his throat.
“I’ll see you soon, Dad,” he said.
He led his mother into the corridor, aware of the medical staff closing ranks around the bed as they left. His mother was pale, and when he put his arm around her he realized her whole body was trembling.
“Oh, Garret.” She turned her face into his chest and burst into messy, noisy tears. “His face . . . He can barely open his eye. And his mouth . . .”
“It’s early days yet, Mom. Let’s wait and see what the doctor says,” Garret said, because there wasn’t much else he could say.
He was still trying to find his feet himself, trying to get past the confronting realization that while his father might have survived, his life would never be the same again.
It was half an hour before Dr. Wilson came to talk to them in waiting room.
“Okay,” he said, letting out a long sigh as he sat down. “We’ve completed an initial neurological exam, and it’s clear Gideon’s suffered significant damage. There are still more tests to do, but at the moment I’d put him at a twenty-eight on the stroke scale. In the severe category.”
His mother made a small, distressed noise.
“But that will change with rehab, right?” Garret asked.
Dr. Wilson paused a moment before answering. “At the moment, he has profound paralysis down his right side. He’s lost his speech, and his swallowing reflex is weak. We’ll put him straight into intensive rehabilitation and speech therapy, but there is no guarantee what gains he might make or how long it might take. Rehab is a process, and it’s never a straight line. I’m sorry, I know that’s not what you want to hear, but it’s all I can tell you right now.”
They talked about next steps—moving Gideon to a general ward, intensive rehabilitation—for a few minutes before Dr. Wilson excused himself.
His mother plucked a handful of tissues from the box on the table and blew her nose noisily after he’d gone.
“Hang in there, Mom,” he said. “We’ll make sure Dad gets the best care. And you know how stubborn he is.”
She nodded. Then she took a deep breath, as though girding herself for a difficult conversation. “Garret, we need to talk about the business.”
“Okay. I can call Ron—”
“No. You have to take charge, Garret. Not Ron. I don’t want him swooping in and taking over everything.”
His mother held his gaze, urging him to agree. He studied her face, trying to understand what was going on. Ron Gibson had been with Tate Transport for more than thirty years, working his way from truck driver all the way up to general manager. There was no one his father valued or trusted more, and Garret knew for a fact that the man was a frequent guest at the ranch. There was no one more qualified or better positioned to take over the day-to-day running of the business in the short term. Long term was another story, but that wasn’t a discussion for today.
“I thought you loved Ron.”
“Your father loves Ron. Tate Transport is your father’s legacy, your inheritance. You need to be the one making decisions, not Ron. I want you to take over as CEO immediately.”
Garret thought of his business partners back in Seattle and all the plans they’d made together. After years of back-breaking work, their fledgling coffee machine manufacturing business was on the verge of really taking off. The deal they’d signed in Rome was just the beginning.
But Tate Transport was responsible for the employment of more than a thousand people, some of whom had been with his father for decades.
There was no arguing with those kinds of numbers, or the look on his mother’s face.
“Don’t worry about the business,” he said, aware that he was about to upend his whole life. “I’ll take care of everything. I’ll do whatever it takes.”
End of Excerpt