The light falling in through the open hangar doors was turning warm orange as the sun approached the horizon. Jake, stretching stiffened muscles, his spine crackling, saw how the long shadows had crept across the floor, enveloping the far corners in their gloom. He wiped an arm across his forehead, plucking at the T-shirt that stuck to his back with the other hand. The hangar had been baking in the August sun all day, and he was grateful for the light breeze that blew through the open doors, ruffling his hair. It cooled him off a little as he leaned down to pick up the compressor, preparing to put it back in.
He'd spent the afternoon taking the crop duster's engine apart for maintenance. Not because the plane needed it—he and Heather had overhauled it just last week—but because the work calmed him, forcing him to focus his attention on what he was doing and helping distract him from events earlier in the day.
Because, honestly? Jake didn't have a clue what had happened. No matter how much he turned it over in his mind, he still couldn't make sense of any of it.
Dale's had been crowded, and Mr. Rhoades at the hardware store had held him up, wanting to chat. Then Gray had asked his opinion on the new pumping station, designed to operate independently from the main power grid. Leaving City Hall, he'd bumped into Jimmy, who also seemed to need a word. So, yeah, he'd gotten back to the ranch a little later than he'd promised Heather. But that was no reason for her to slam down a mug of coffee in front of him with so much force that the contents sloshed over the rim, or to call him an unreliable jerk, was it?
Before he could even begin to explain why he was late, tears had followed, and more angry words and unfair accusations—until Jake sensed his own irritation reach a point where he was afraid the next thing he said or did would be something he'd regret later. So he'd taken the only other option: he'd fled the house.
He'd headed straight for the airfield, a place that had long been a sanctuary for him. He'd longed to take the plane up—there was nothing like flying free as a bird to soothe ruffled feathers—but going up for no better reason than the sheer pleasure of it would use up more fuel than the fledgling business could afford. Reluctantly, he'd sucked it up, remained earthbound, and taken the engine apart instead.
The last of the day was fading quickly and, with the plane blocking the light falling in through the doors, it was growing harder to see what he was doing. Jake hesitated as he tightened the nuts holding the compressor in place. He'd have to decide soon: either go home and try to patch things up with Heather, or turn on the overheads and continue working while he gave both of them a bit more time to cool off.
Just as he was weighing the pros and cons of each—he still wasn't sure what had upset Heather so much, or had any idea where to start fixing it—the scuff of soft footfalls on the cement floor on the other side of the plane reached him. He tensed, his hand automatically reaching for the gun he'd put on the table next to the nuts and bolts that held the engine together. After Cheyenne had been defeated and the true government restored, Kansas had become a much safer place. But old habits die hard, and unknown people sneaking up on him at dusk still brought him on full alert.
The tension flooded out of him, and he released the breath he'd been holding. Putting the gun back on the table, he snatched up a rag. He rounded the plane, wiping off the smears of engine grease on his fingers.
"Hey," he tried cautiously. Heather was hesitating in the last stripes of pale sunlight falling across the oil-stained concrete, and he couldn't make out her face: she was silhouetted sharply against the brighter sky outside. Though he couldn't gauge her mood, the sight of her still made his heart skip—just like it did every time he saw her. Just like it had ever since the day he'd first laid eyes on her, on that school bus. He'd just been too much of an idiot to notice.
"I'm sorry I yelled at you." Heather's voice was soft. "What I said…. That wasn't fair."
Jake shook his head, accepting the olive branch and offering one of his own. "Nah, you were—."
Heather gave a quick shake of her head, and Jake paused, wondering what sort of reply she did want. "Okay… maybe it was a little unfair?" he ventured.
She responded with a noise that sounded half-sob, half-laugh, and he let out a breath. He guessed it was the correct response. Which was a good thing. 'Cause, truth be told, it seemed he'd gotten it wrong far more often than he'd gotten it right, lately. He wasn't even sure when that had started: Heather was usually so even-tempered, far more than he was, that it had taken him a while to notice the change in her behavior. But, these days, what had once made her laugh could just as easily bring her to tears, and the slightest setback could cause her to throw a tantrum. Jake had felt like he was walking on eggshells half the time and, frankly, he was growing damned tired of it.
"I'm sorry." Heather repeated the apology and moved nearer, until he could see her face. Her eyes shone with tears, and the last of his irritation slipped away.
"Hey, hey." He gathered her up in his arms, hugging her close. "No harm done, alright?" He stroked her hair while she rested her cheek against his chest. "Want to tell me what it was all about?"
She sniffled and pulled back a little, craning her neck to peer up at him. "I went to see Kenchy this morning."
He frowned down at her. "Kenchy…?"
"At the med center," she elaborated, a worried look still on her face.
"Why? Is something wrong?" He grasped her by the shoulders and held her at arms' length, scanning her face, his heart suddenly thudding against his ribs. "Are you sick?"
Again she made that odd noise in the back of her throat. She shook her head. "No…."
The diffident denial didn't really put Jake at ease. Nor did the way she pulled free from his grip and began pacing. "Jake, I know this is entirely the wrong time, and you're so busy getting the business up and running, and… and things are still so unsettled." She gave a vague flap of her hand, indicating the world outside, before twining her fingers together tightly. "I didn't mean for it to happen, but it did. And we've never talked about it, so I don't even know what you want. But I do, and—."
"Whoa, whoa!" He held up his hands, palms out. "Calm down." He still had no idea what she was talking about: he'd barely managed to catch one word in three, the way she was rattling them off. He used to love it when she babbled like that, but right now she was just scaring him, even though she'd denied being sick. "Heather? What's going on?"
She chewed her lip. "I suspected for a while…. Kenchy confirmed it." She stopped and turned to face him. "I'm pregnant."
"What?" His jaw dropped, and for a long moment he simply gaped at her, thinking he must've heard her wrong. He tried to speak, but no sound came out, and he snapped his mouth shut again. Clearing his throat, he tried again. "Wait… You're saying…. We're gonna have a baby?"
She scrubbed at her eyes with the back of her hand and nodded. "That's usually what pregnant means."
"That's… that's…. Wow." His mind was still reeling, trying to process the news, when he noticed Heather looking up at him, her expression uncertain, and he realized something more was expected. When his brain refused to come up with anything more coherent, he closed the distance between them in two long strides, took her face between his hands and dipped his head to kiss her. He kept the kiss light and gentle, attempting to convey his love for her without words. After a moment, he felt some of the anxiety seep out of her, and she relaxed against him. He rested his forehead against hers. "I love you."
"You're not upset?"
"Upset?" He drew back far enough that he could look into her eyes, though he didn't let go of her. "Why would I be—?" He shook his head. "No, I think it's wonderful!"
"Yes, really." It finally sank in fully, and joy surged through him. Without thinking, he snatched her up in his arms and swirled her around. "We're having a baby!"
She laughed, smacking his shoulders. "Jake! Put me down!"
He sobered abruptly, setting her back on her feet carefully. He'd grown cold to his core, hearing echoes of desperate cries: Do something…. She's going to die….
"I'm sorry." He swallowed. "That was dumb. Did I hurt you?"
She snorted. "I'm not made of spun sugar!"
"No, but I—." He shook his head and took a deep breath, gasoline and engine grease replacing the ghostly scents of blood and antiseptic. "I'll take you to Rogue River tomorrow, to the county hospital…." It was up and running again, and they'd be able to provide better care than Jericho's small med center could.
Some of his thoughts must've shown on his face, because Heather's expression grew serious, and she reached up to cup his cheek. "I'm gonna be fine, Jake. Millions of women have babies every day."
"I know, but…." But April died.
He'd wasted so much time already; if he lost her now….
"Shh." Heather threaded her fingers in his hair and pulled his face down into the crook of her neck. He clung to her, inhaling her scent. She smelled of soap and shampoo and Heather. She whispered in his ear, "We'll be fine."
Sometimes, he thought, she could read his mind.
After a minute or so, his back started to protest the awkward angle and he straightened. He pushed a wayward lock of hair behind her ear, drinking in her face. There was a smudge of grease on her cheek, and he brushed at it with his thumb, only succeeding in smearing it further.
"Um, Jake? There's one thing…." Her mouth twitched upward in a slight smile, although the small tremor in her voice gave away her apprehension. "Kenchy said it could be another week or two before my body adjusts to, you know, the hormones? So, you may have to put up with me and my unreasonableness for a while longer…."
He grinned. "Okay." Now that he knew why she was behaving so out of character, it no longer bothered him half so much. On the contrary. He leaned in to kiss her again, a far deeper and passionate kiss this time, which left her gasping.
Drawing back, he decided she could yell at him as much as she wanted; he'd live. They were having a baby; for that, he could survive anything.