Six-point-nine-million dollars doled out over twenty years was around $226,000 a year, give or take a thousand, after Uncle Sam got his share.
Six years after he won the California lottery, Max Wilder still enjoyed watching curious folks go bug-eyed at the numbers. He had waited until that first check was in his hands before he had quit his piloting job of flying corporate execs around in private jets. Then he left Los Angeles behind and relocated to Phoenix. Sometimes, he still had a hard time adjusting to the scope of it all.
That’s not to say he didn’t like what the money could do. Like right now. If somebody had told him six years ago that one day he would be rich enough to fly emergency supplies to the Midwest for flood victims, he would’ve laughed them off the Learjet he piloted for Corporate-Air, the Los Angeles-based private airline and his employer at the time.
Yet here he was, sitting in the pilot’s seat of his own vintage Beech-17, hauling cases of rubber gloves and boots, flashlights and batteries, and a slew of other things needed by the disaster-relief agency. This trip to Texas was the last out-of-state run to cities where volunteers had accumulated donations. Max was bone-tired, but he didn’t mind. The job of white knight was a lot easier than he thought it would be. After the adrenaline high of his first mercy mission, he was hooked.
With the loud engines droning in his ears, Max gazed out his window at the Mississippi River. He was only a few miles from the convergence with the Missouri. No matter how many times he flew over the flooded areas, he would never get used to seeing the murky water spread out in all directions across the flat plain. It was as bad as the Great Flood of ʼ93 and a few others since then. Only this one looked as though it might be the granddaddy of them all, swallowing up more farmland, more small towns. He could make out dots of treetops and white farmhouses, some of the latter submerged to their roofs. In the middle of the watery landscape, Max spotted parallel green lines that looked more like toy railroad tracks than the original tree-lined riverbank.
It was a hell of a helpless feeling watching that river rise day after day, week after week, threatening the land his family had farmed for generations. Good thing none of them were around to see the devastation. They were gone—his grandparents, his old man, his mother.
The aerial view blurred from the moisture in Max’s eyes. With a shake of his head to clear his vision, he turned his attention back to flying, refusing to believe that his fuzzy eyesight sprang from any emotional response. Too many hours in the air had finally caught up with him. As soon as he delivered these supplies into Saint Louis, he was going to head back to Alton and hit the sack for at least three days straight.
He couldn’t let himself think about Johnny McKenzie. But the more he tried to block the memories of his friend, the more they hounded him. Somewhere in the deepest recesses his mind, Max had thought that someday, somehow, he would find it in his heart to forgive Johnny. He had always thought there would come a time when he would come home to Alton and bury the hatchet.
That time ran out two years earlier, when Max had gotten the news in a roundabout way that Johnny had been on the fatal flight of a commercial airline. Max had wanted to attend the funeral. He’d even made it as far as the United Methodist Church, only to pull up short at the sight of Liza Jane. Before she could spot him, he had ducked out of sight.
Liza Jane Brown . . . No, not Brown.
Her name had been McKenzie for too many years now, Max reminded himself. Liza Jane McKenzie. Damn, how the mere thought of her married name could still slug him in the gut, even after sixteen years.
Max glanced down at the instrument panel, then out the window at the waterscape below. In a few more minutes, he’d be landing in Saint Louis. Another hour and he’d be back in Alton where he could lay low at the old farmhouse until the next mercy mission. With any luck, he would avoid going any place he might bump into Liza Jane. He couldn’t allow himself to see her again. He couldn’t look down into her green eyes without letting her see the scars of hurt, of pain, of betrayal. He couldn’t risk asking the question that had haunted him for so long—why did you choose Johnny instead of me, Liza Jane?
* * *
Max is back.
Standing on the steps of the ancient McKenzie boardinghouse overlooking the swollen Mississippi, Elizabeth McKenzie couldn’t stop thinking of Max Wilder. Two weeks had passed since she’d heard the rumor her high-school boyfriend had returned to his parents’ boarded-up farmhouse. Apparently, he had built a makeshift runway on the deserted, muddy fields for an old cargo plane so he could fly emergency supplies into the flooded Midwest.
Max is back.
Each time the silent reminder popped into her head, she felt her heart plummet to her toes. Lord help her if she ran into him in town. What would she say? How would she react to him? Thankfully, he had kept pretty much to himself. Word was he had been gone most of the past week, anyway—which had made her rest a little easier. Not much, but a little.
With a tired sigh, she closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose, trying in vain to rid herself of the dull ache in her head, as well as the picture of Max in her mind.
Max is back. And she couldn’t do a blessed thing about it except wait and wonder if their two worlds would collide.
She raised her head as Steve Walford took a red bandanna out of his back pocket and wiped the sweat from his forehead. Furrowed eyebrows told her that his news wasn’t going to be good. “Number-three pump is almost out.”
“We managed to save this old building in two other floods, Steve,” she pleaded. “Isn’t there anything you can do this time?’’
“Doesn’t look good.” Steve stashed the bandanna. “Without that third pump the basement will flood for sure. When it does, the oil furnace and water heater will go out. Those people you got living here better evacuate to the Red Cross shelter at the high-school gym.”
Elizabeth appreciated his help. Steve had a knack of showing up whenever a crisis arose. Perhaps she depended on him a little too much. She could handle just about anything that life had thrown at her, but it was still nice to have his advice, his friendship. In his mid-forties and divorced, Steve had made it quite clear that he was interested in Elizabeth, a good ten years younger. But she couldn’t regard him with anything more than deep friendship.
She stood at the front steps with Steve and his cohort Tug Mazzey, another local business owner who was trying to help her save the old building from the rising river.
What they didn’t know and what she couldn’t tell them was that the seven women and their kids could not go to a crowded shelter where an ambitious news reporter might expose them on television. No one in town knew that the renovated McKenzie boardinghouse harbored women from the nearby Saint Louis area who had fled violent relationships.
“I’ll find another pump,” she said with more confidence than she felt.
Both men looked down at the groaning machine.
“You know it won’t be that simple,” Tug argued. “There’s none left within hundreds of miles up and down these rivers. Everyone’s fightin’ the same fight you are, hon. And they’re not getting the amount of volunteer help that they got before. You can’t expect folks to give up their own pumps and risk losing their homes just so you can save this old building.”
“It’s not just a building I’m trying to save, Tug.”
“We know,” Steve answered solemnly. “We know.”
Elizabeth looked out at the leaden skies and the slowly encroaching Mississippi. It had already laid claim to a parking lot across the street and was about to breach the four-foot embankment alongside the empty road. When it did, it would pass the watermark of previous floods. At least the traffic jam of sightseers was finally gone. The National Guard had positioned a barricade up the hill to keep away all but the property owners and designated volunteers working the pumps.
“Can you keep this thing running long enough for me to get a pump trucked down from Chicago?” she said.
“With bridges out, that’ll take longer than usual. More rain’s expected, too. Doubt you’ll get anything through in time.” Steve was the voice of reason, but Elizabeth couldn’t give up. Not yet.
“Let me worry about time,” she said. “Just tell me how much longer before the basement floods.”
Tug stroked his double chin in contemplation. “If you had a good mechanic and the right parts—two days, tops.”
“Are you saying you two can’t fix it?”
“We’ve tried everything,” Steve admitted. “My guess is you need somebody who knows engines like the back of his hand.”
“Yeah,” Tug added, eyeing Steve. “Somebody who could jerry-rig just about anything.”
“Max Wilder.” Elizabeth hadn’t realized she’d spoken his name aloud until Steve brightened and Tug looked confused. She held her breath, regretting her slip of the tongue.
“Of course! Wildman!” Grinning, Steve shook his head, as if reliving a distant memory. Surely, he didn’t know about her intimate relationship with Max. Or did he? she wondered. He turned to Tug, explaining that Wilder was a local hell-raiser quite a while back. “Worked as a mechanic after school. Damn good, too. That boy was a natural. Joined the military to become a pilot.” He looked at Elizabeth. “Weren’t you livin’ here back then? Before you moved to Chicago?”
Elizabeth nodded numbly, remembering those days all too easily. When Max had left to become an air force pilot, he was supposed to have come back for her. But their lives had taken a different course. She’d heard a few years ago that he’d won a big state lottery. It was hard to believe that Wildman was now worth millions.
“Good thing you mentioned him.” Steve interrupted her thoughts. “I’d forgotten he was back. Making himself pretty scarce with all those relief flights he’s been running. Sure surprised to hear about it, too. Don’t recall him being the white-hat type.”
“Definitely not,” murmured Elizabeth, trying to imagine Max as a Lone Ranger riding to the rescue. It was no good. Max was more suited to a black hat and dangerous smile. Unless he was paid a king’s ransom, he was never known to do anything without personal benefit.
“Money changes people.” Steve shrugged. “He can afford to play hero. And I bet he’d jump at the chance to fix that old pump for you.”
She doubted it. If he had even the faintest memory of his days in Alton, he wouldn’t want to lay eyes on her again, let alone help her save the old boardinghouse.
Elizabeth spoke more for the men’s benefit than her own. She knew the odds were against her, but . . . “Do you really think that pump could be made to last long enough to get a new one?”
“Wouldn’t hurt to ask,” Tug said.
“Looks like you don’t have any other choice.” Steve crossed his arms over his sweat-stained work shirt, looking at her optimistically.
“I better get cleaned up before I go begging for favors,” answered Elizabeth as she glanced down at her own soiled jeans and T-shirt.
“Good luck,” offered Tug.
“Thanks.” She tried to rustle up a smile as she said goodbye. Walking to her car, she felt the butterflies in her stomach take flight.
Max was back.
And she needed him.
* * *
Max left his boots in the mudroom of the farmhouse and walked into the kitchen, where he rummaged through his mom’s old Harvester refrigerator for something to eat. The lack of a microwave whittled down his immediate choices to an apple and a beer. He chose the beer.
Leaving the aluminum cap on the yellow Formica next to the sink, he wandered through the dining room and stopped in the doorway to the living room. Familiar furniture sat right where it always had, most of it draped with faded floral sheets. Max had uncovered only the old man’s brown recliner, the maple end table next to it and the television. He didn’t need much else while he was living here. Except maybe some fresh air. The sky-high humidity had managed to seep into the closed-up room, suffocating him with the moist, musty smell of a dead house.
He swigged the ice-cold beer, welcoming the chill in his throat. Crossing the worn-out carpet, he rolled the chilled bottle over his forehead, wetting his skin. The pale green drapes were open, but dingy sheers hung in all four windows. He was lifting the sash of the last one when he spotted the mud-splattered sedan turning left into the driveway.
“Real-estate brokers,” he muttered to himself, taking another pull on the longneck. Too tired to deal with another agent pressuring him to list the farm, he stepped aside to avoid being seen by the woman emerging from the car parked in the shade of a tree at the end of the concrete walk. With one finger, he drew back the sheer curtain a fraction of an inch to peer at her. Though her door blocked most of his view, he noticed white sandals and slender ankles. They looked sexy as hell, but he couldn’t imagine what possessed a woman to wear strappy little sandals while driving around the muddiest roads on the map. Given any other circumstances, Max would’ve welcomed the opportunity to pursue an attractive woman. But the pretty package didn’t change the fact that she was undoubtedly after a listing. Nobody but a real-estate agent would bother to drive clear out to the farm. And he was in no mood to be seduced into selling his folks’ place.
Late-afternoon sunlight silhouetted the visitor. Something about her seemed familiar. A sense of unease settled in his gut. She paused at the opening in the white picket fence, where the gate hung open with morning glories twined around it. Her long skirt and white blouse made him think of old photographs in the family album that had been painted in soft pastels. Her dark blond hair was loosely pinned up off her shoulders. Her hands reached up and removed a pair of sunglasses.
“I’ll be damned.” His awestruck whisper hung in the heavy air.
She hesitated, then slid the glasses back into place and started toward the house. He ducked behind the drape.
Hearing light footsteps on the wooden porch steps, he glanced down at his socks. One big toe poked through a hole. The cuffs of his jeans were caked with dried mud. His light blue T-shirt had engine grease streaked across the front.
The broken doorbell emitted a pathetic, abbreviated dink. He peeled off one sock and let it drop to the floor, then hopped to the door as he yanked at the second sock. When Liza Jane pressed the button again, he balled up the holey sock and tossed it across the room toward the first one, but it fell short, landing on the lampshade.
Disgruntled with his poor shot, he pulled open the heavy oak door.
Elizabeth smiled brightly. Too brightly, she knew. But she couldn’t stop herself, any more than she could stop the flutter of starlings that had taken flight in her stomach.
The years vanished as she gazed at Max standing behind the screen door with his black hair a little too long and those dark blue eyes staring right into her. She felt sixteen all over again. Her mouth dried up. Her thoughts scrambled. Worst of all, her body tensed with the same sexual electricity she had felt with the eighteen-year-old “Wildman” Wilder.
“Hi, Max.” She dipped her head and removed her big sunglasses again. “It’s me.”
She held her breath, waiting to see if he would slam the door on her. His narrowed eyes studied her from head to toe and back again. Then he said her name in a soft whisper that took her back to drive-in movies and haylofts. “Liza Jane . . .”
She nodded, afraid to trust her voice.
“You’ve changed,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief.
“And I haven’t been called Liza Jane in years.”
“Is it Elizabeth-the-Classical-Actress?” He remembered the way she had once rattled off her dream as if it was one long name.
“You shortened it.”
She smiled modestly. “We had great aspirations, didn’t we? At least you attained yours—becoming a pilot.”
Max felt a knife twist in his stomach when she mentioned aspirations. He had enlisted in the air force, expecting to go on to flight school while she majored in drama in college. But the summer after her high-school graduation, she started talking marriage and babies. He thought they were both too damn young. Then one day he got her letter, telling him she had married Johnny and moved to Chicago. His folks never filled him in on any details, which was fine with him.
“How have you been?” she asked nervously.
“Not bad.” Remaining in the doorway, he didn’t bother to invite her into the empty house. She’d probably come to satisfy her curiosity about her ex-boyfriend. Once she realized that a few million bucks hadn’t changed him from being a grease monkey, she would hightail it back home. Just as well. He didn’t need her around here dredging up memories. “How about you? I was going to try and get into town to say hello when I had a chance.”
It was a lie, but he couldn’t exactly tell her that he’d been avoiding her like the plague.
“I guess you couldn’t know—”
“He died, Max. Two years ago.”
“I heard,” he admitted quietly. Sensing the sadness in her voice was like having a fist slam into his chest. Max hated the man for stealing Liza Jane, but he’d never thought the jerk would up and die on her. “I . . . uh, read about it in the Phoenix paper.”
She shook her head, then glanced down at her feet, as if mustering up courage from beneath the peeling floorboards of the porch. When she looked up again, her full lips curved into a weak smile, but her eyes were bright with unshed tears. “Plane crash. Ironic, huh?”
She turned and gazed out at the horizon, hugging her arms as if a chill had somehow gripped her in the midst of the muggy heat. “You were the one who was the reckless kid playing daredevil pilot. You were the one I was afraid was going to die in a plane crash. After everything that has happened, I’m not too crazy about flying anymore. I can’t imagine that you do it every day without any fear whatsoever.”
Max was surprised by her confession. She still thought about him? She even worried about his flying? All this time he’d been wondering about her, wishing things had turned out differently, dreaming of her in his life. But he had assumed she’d forgotten all about him.
“I guess it is a bit ironic, at that.” The old screen door squeaked as he stepped out onto the porch and stood behind her, watching the sky grow darker. He didn’t know what to say about Johnny. Despite their close friendship, there had always been a childhood rivalry between the two of them. Johnny had always come in second to Max. Until Liza Jane. The true irony was that Johnny was gone and his widow was now standing here on the front porch with Max. His friend had lost out again.
“I’m sorry about Johnny,” he offered honestly.
She pivoted around and looked up at him. A tear had run down the side of her cheek, leaving a glistening wet line. The last time he’d seen her cry was at the end of his Christmas leave all those years ago. She hadn’t wanted him to go back to Germany without her. But this time she wasn’t crying for him. She was crying for another man, the man she’d lost just two years ago.
“Thanks for coming by to say hi,” he said, then nodded to the ominous sky. “It looks like a storm’s blowing in. You better get on back.”
She allowed herself a small chuckle. “Those were the same words you used to say when I’d come by that old filling station where you worked.”
“I recall you weren’t much for listening to my advice . . . or your daddy’s threats.”
Back in those days, Max had been every father’s worst nightmare—a hot-tempered eighteen-year-old whose nickname, Wildman, said it all. Max had paid no attention to the younger Liza Jane until the night he had another fight with his girlfriend. He was nursing his bruised ego and Liza Jane was too damn eager to console him. In hindsight, he never should have got that six-pack of Bud. After drinking a can, she changed from the chubby, freckle-faced sixteen-year-old into a hot, voluptuous seductress. Something in his gut had warned him she was a virgin, but she sure as hell didn’t act like one. She was more than any hormone-driven teenage guy could imagine. He never meant for things to go as far as they did. That night was only the beginning. Right or wrong, he couldn’t stop going back to her.
But there’d been something more between them, something other than great sex. He couldn’t exactly name it or even admit to it. All he knew at the time was that he couldn’t breathe without Liza Jane Brown. Liza Jane was his, and his only.
Or so he’d thought.
Right up until the day she’d married his best friend.
He yanked his thoughts back from the past and glared at her. “I hate to cut this short, but—”
“I need you, Max.”
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