Read Blue Skies Online

Authors: Robyn Carr

Blue Skies (4 page)

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That morning, trying to reach the kids on her cell phone, she couldn't get a signal. When she did get through, she found that the kids were with Buck, terrified for her safety because they couldn't reach her.

Her first reaction, like the rest of the world's, was shock and horror. But she had a bigger mission—she had a plane to get out of Boston and a crew that was shaken and needed her leadership.

They were put in a hotel where they sat glued to televisions, watching an unbelievable drama happening not very far away. Most of her crew didn't have enough money for days of meals and incidentals, so Nikki covered them. It didn't take long for the passengers to disappear from the airport to find alternative means of transportation. Some of them would never be back.

“Mama, I don't want you to fly!” April had wailed into the phone.

“April, flying is what I do, what I've always done, and no madman from an angry country is going to drive me away from it. But I promise you I'll be taking extra precautions.”

“But what if it was you?”

“But it wasn't, April. We have to be strong now. Everyone in the U.S. has to be brave and strong now.”

Days later Nikki and her copilot flew an empty plane
back to Phoenix. He had missed the birth of his first child. One of the flight attendants was sick as a dog all the way home, and the minute they landed she quit. When the industry was flying again, Aries canceled the majority of their flights, as did every airline in the industry; they flew approximately thirty percent of their schedule, and those flights were not half-full. Even the business traveler stayed home. When companies started sending their people on business trips again, a sagging economy necessitated prudence—they bought bargain fares, purchasing cheap, nonrefundable tickets in advance.

Nikki, her family, her friends and the rest of the country were consumed by pain and sorrow and anger that seemed to have no end.

Aries furloughed a fourth of its workforce in the first month after 9/11, then levied ten-to thirty-percent pay cuts across the board. Most of the other airlines did the same. Two small airlines simply ceased operations in that first week after the terrorist attacks, unable to sustain the losses.

Industrywide, the financial loss reached fifteen billion in that first year. The government came across with five billion in relief, but the bankruptcy filings of seven airlines proved it would not be adequate. Only a very small percentage of the ten-billion-dollar loan package approved by Congress reached a couple of airlines.

A year later the passenger-load factors were still not quite fifty percent of what they had been before 9/11. Dozens of airplanes, from puddle jumpers to huge jets, sat in storage, parked, unused. Their owners, the lessors that airlines leased the planes from, began laying off personnel and filing for Chapter Eleven protection, as well.

The average passenger didn't notice empty planes, missing planes or deserted airports; to Joe Six-pack it appeared business as usual, because airlines combined flights and canceled flights. The 8:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. flights to Philly became one flight, and it was almost full, and so on. And there was the hub-and-spoke operation—all the planes converged on the airline's hub several times a day and the passengers would deplane, filling up the airport, and reboard their connecting flight. These convergences were called “banks.” Phoenix was Aries's hub—everything went through Phoenix, then out again, like the spokes of a bike wheel. In between banks you could fire a cannon through the deserted airport concourses, something the average traveler never saw.

Stricter security measures were put into place, but Nikki had no illusions about their effectiveness. She thought the airlines' greatest security assets were the passengers—they would never let a plane be taken over again.

And then the country went to war, determined to cripple, if not end, terrorism at its roots. Pain and strife and economic troubles spread wider.

Four small to moderately sized airlines shut down in the first year, and in the second year at least three huge airlines that had been around forever teetered on the brink of failure. Nikki's airline limped along, but had lost several hundred million and flirted with filing for bankruptcy protection.

Nikki was left with two overwhelming conclusions about her work and her world. One: we are no longer safe. And two: we must carry on.

 

When Nikki took her flight out of Phoenix, Dixie was still waiting for her inbound flight to arrive. She tapped
her foot and crossed her fingers. Her trip had better not cancel; she had big plans for her layover. A sexy red teddy and a nice bottle of wine were tucked away in her suitcase, and she also had a very expensive man's watch wrapped in silver paper—much more money than she should spend, especially with all the recent pay cuts. But this was a very special man, and it was his birthday.

Branch Darnell, a pilot with Aries, was turning forty-seven, though Dixie didn't think he looked a day over thirty-five. He did have those sexy little crinkles at the corners of his eyes, but that was as much from his year-round tan as age. They'd been seeing each other for six months, and she couldn't help but think he was The One. At first she'd held off letting herself think that, but she was more convinced of it every day. Over the years Dixie had had quite a few love affairs, way too many of them with pilots, but this time felt different. It had the feel of permanence.

Branch was a Texan, and Dixie couldn't help but have a soft spot for the Longhorns. He commuted from San Antonio and had all but moved in with her in Phoenix when he came to town to fly. Every week, more and more of his belongings appeared in her closet and bathroom. She was senior enough to hold just about any flying line she wanted, and tried to bid his schedule so she could spend the night with him on layovers. The drawback was that he
wasn't
senior, and the lines he was awarded were usually awful—short hops, crappy layovers, working weekends. Branch was a retired air force colonel and had only been flying commercially for three years; he was still a first officer and not even a senior one. Dixie ended up working a lot harder than she had to just be able to spend time with him.

Fortunately tonight was a rarity—a long New York City layover. A nice birthday present in itself.

There was one minor complication—Branch wasn't divorced yet. He was separated, though, and when the divorce was complete, which he had warned her wouldn't be real fast, he wasn't going to relocate to Phoenix for a few years. There were still a couple of kids at home. So it wasn't perfect, but it was damn close.

Nikki was worried. “I don't know, Dixie. He's got that look. Like he's been around.”

“Well, darlin', he's not the only one,” Dixie had replied with a laugh.

“It's different with you,” Nikki said.

Dixie didn't have to ask why. Nikki knew as well as she did that she never left a man she'd slept with. She was completely devoted. Completely naive, too. She fell fast, hard and completely.

So why hadn't she married at nineteen? It was all she'd ever wanted. From her first real date, Dixie had never stopped thinking church bells and altar. But time and the number of men she'd been through had too often left her brokenhearted and lonely. There was always a guy, even when she wished there wasn't. Men rushed to date her, to get her into bed, to take her on trips and buy her nice things. And then,
whoosh
—they were gone as fast as they appeared. She was thirty-five years old, had eleven tennis bracelets of varying value, when all she'd really like to have was a husband and baby.

“Maybe if you wouldn't jump into bed with them so fast…” Carlisle had suggested as gently as possible.

“I try to wait,” Dixie told him. “But I fall in love, they swear it's forever, and then—”

“Well, at least you've gotten some nice jewelry out of it.”

But she'd so much rather have a husband. Well, she'd been with Branch for six months, which was a bit of a record for Dixie.

He could have been put off by the number of men who had come before him, but he accepted her as she was. “How can I expect a woman as beautiful as you to be a virgin till she's thirty-five? So long as you're mine now, I've got no real complaint.”

“I'm yours,” she was quick to assure him. And it wasn't just pillow talk—she
was.

She checked the inbound flights on the screen and saw that the one she was waiting for had finally landed. Pulling her cell phone out of her purse, she pecked off some numbers.

“Well, darlin', you gettin' tired of waiting for me?” he drawled.

“There's a rumor floatin' around that it's some tall Texan's birthday today.”

He chuckled. “You got somethin' for me, ma'am?”

“I might be able to rustle something up,” she said. “Tonight. In New York.”

“Mmm, that sounds delicious, darlin'. See you on the plane.”

Branch had had a layover the previous night and Dixie was hooking up with his trip here in Phoenix. Cockpit crews and cabin crews rarely flew full schedules together. The cabin crew that had been on this trip since yesterday was getting off in Phoenix, and a new set of flight attendants would go with the pilots to New York.

At least it was New York for Branch's birthday and not somewhere like Buffalo or Des Moines. Dixie wanted to be able to take him to a posh five-star restaurant later…if he'd let her out of bed long enough to go eat.

They weren't ridiculously secretive about their relationship, but they did play it cool at work. Branch was right—there was no point in having everyone talking. “It's your reputation I'm worried about, not mine,” he had said. “Even though my marriage has been over for years, I'm still
officially
married.”

She had dated so many pilots, there would be more than the usual amount of chatter when she let the cat out of the bag that she was dating yet another. Her coworkers were pretty quick to catch on, though. They knew the look, the glance, the little mating dance. If a very junior pilot and a very senior flight attendant always flew together…how discreet was that?

But if they came to work in the same car after Branch had spent the night at her house, Dixie would drop him at the terminal first and then go park. When they checked into a hotel on a layover, they went to their individual rooms and met in hers later. They never went to dinner together on layovers unless it was with the entire crew. Tonight they might just break that rule, though, since it was such a special occasion.

When Dixie got to the plane, Branch was doing a walk around out on the ramp, so she started checking meals and liquor in the galley.

Every flight was a little like a stage play, with a different cast of more than two-hundred-fifty every time. You never knew what would be in the script, and that was one of the things Dixie loved about her work.

She was the senior flight attendant on this trip and chose to work in the back cabin. Their Boeing 767 would be nearly full and they had four crew members in the back. The flight had a stop in Denver and they were getting a late start.

When Branch finished his walk around outside and
returned to the plane, he found Dixie in the forward galley. He looked around. The captain's back was to the door, there were no connecting passengers in first class, and there didn't seem to be any flight attendants nearby. He grabbed her and gave her a nice, long kiss, his large hand planted on her butt. “Missed you,” he said against her lips.

The lav door opened and Bea, another crew member, stepped out. Smiling, she said, “Ha! I saw that.”

Dixie put a finger to her lips to shush her and said to Branch, “Get to work.” But Dixie was not upset. The truth was she'd be happy if people found out about them, because Branch was handsome, successful and sweet. What could be bad about finally falling in love with a great guy? So what if it complicated the work thing? They'd downplay it a little. But how long were they supposed to continue this ridiculous game of pretending not to know each other? Dixie was sure it showed all over her face every time she heard Branch's name.

Moments later the passengers started to stream aboard, and once everyone was safely seated, the plane pushed back and nosed toward the runway. Dixie and Bea sat in the first-class jump seat for takeoff. Bea was young, just a kid. Twenty-five and engaged. “So?” she asked Dixie. “How long has that been going on?”

“Shh. No reason to make a big deal out of it in the workplace. But we've been seeing each other for about six months.”

“Is it serious?”

“Very. He doesn't want anyone to make a fuss over him, but today is his birthday. That's one reason I made sure to get this trip.” She winked. “I have a little birthday party planned for F.O. Darnell.”

“You're a bad, bad girl,” Bea laughed. “You think there will be a little something to announce soon?”

“Marriage? Well, now, I don't like to count my chickens, but I was born and raised in Texas, and I know these Texas men. Kind of old-fashioned about their women. They like taking them off the market.”

The flight went fast, dipping into Denver before Dixie knew it. Some passengers deplaned to catch connecting flights while others boarded for New York. Soon Dixie was serving dinner. The sun was going down and it was dark outside, even though her watch still said 3:00 p.m.

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