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New Horizons

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“Wake up, sleepyhead.” The voice murmuring in her ear was soft, warm breath ruffling her hair. “Rise and shine.” A light nip on her nose followed the words, and then a firmer kiss on her lips. Heather shifted, blinking sleepily. There were worse ways to wake up, she reckoned, but—.

“What time is it?” Although weak daylight was filtering through the closed curtains, it felt like it was still early. Far too early to be awake on a Sunday morning.

“Little before eight.” Jake pulled the curtains open so watery sunlight flooded the room. “It’s a beautiful day, sun’s out, and it’s far too nice to stay in bed.”

“Oh, really?” She offered him a languid smile, stretching her arms over her head and arching seductively under the covers.

She saw Jake swallow. He bit his lip, visibly hesitating before he growled, “Oh no, babe, you’re not gonna distract me that easily. I have other plans for us today.” He reached down and seized the covers, yanking them off of her in a single quick pull.

“Jake!” Heather squeaked at the sudden chill that washed over her in spite of her flannel pajamas. The sun might be out—for the first time in what seemed like days—but the temperature in the bedroom reminded her it was still mid-winter, and that the ranch house was old and drafty.

He chuckled, unimpressed by the annoyed glare she shot him. She rubbed her arms, trying to dispel the goosebumps that had sprung up immediately.

“Here.” Taking pity, Jake offered her the thick woolen sweater that Mimi had knitted her as a Christmas gift, and a pair of jeans. “Get dressed. There’s something I want to you to see.”

“At 8 am?” She grabbed the clothes. “On Sunday morning?”

“Yup.” Jake’s mouth twitched in a lopsided smile, and he winked at her mysteriously before heading for the door. “We’re leaving in ten minutes.”

“We’re—what?” Heather was hopping around on one leg, trying to cram the other into the jeans. “Jake, I can’t—.”

“Ten minutes!” The words grew faint as Jake made his way down the stairs.

Heather grumbled under her breath while she finished getting dressed. She quickly ran a brush through her hair, grimacing as the bristles caught on a few tangles. What could be so important he had to wake her up at the crack of dawn on a Sunday in the middle of winter? He should know by now that she liked to sleep in when she had the chance, and there was nothing she had to do today that meant she needed to get up early. Yet, even so, there was a certain earnestness to his enthusiasm that was both appealing and, she realized as she rushed down to meet him, contagious.

Jake was already waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs, holding out her coat so she only had to slip her arms into it. He planted a knitted hat on her head while she buttoned up the coat, before offering her a pair of gloves.

“Thanks.” She finally noticed the basket on the floor behind him, and her eyebrows rose. “What’s that?” She indicated the basket with a nod.

“Breakfast.” He grinned and picked up the basket. “You didn’t think I’d let you go hungry, do you? C’mon.”

Laughing and shaking her head at the same time, Heather allowed him to take her arm and pull her after him, the basket in his other hand.

Outside, he directed her to his car. Holding the door, he waited for her to settle herself in the passenger seat, before giving her the picnic basket to hold in her lap. She rooted through its contents curiously while Jake rounded the car and climbed in behind the wheel. The basket held several plastic containers and tin foil packages that told her absolutely nothing about their contents.

“Hey! No starting yet.” He lightly slapped her hand away.

“But I’m hungry!” she protested.

Jake gave an exaggerated sigh. “There’s some crackers in there. I guess you could start on those.”

Something about the way he said it, about the whole setup, made her change her mind. She didn’t want to be a spoilsport. “No, I can hold out a little longer.” It wasn’t like she was starving, and he’d clearly planned everything carefully. She wondered how long he’d been up before he woke her.

He maneuvered the Roadrunner out along the ranch’s track, and a short time later they were driving through the quiet streets of Jericho. It was early enough that hardly anyone was around, and they quickly reached Main Street and headed east. As they approached the Tacoma bridge, Heather figured he’d take her to that remote spot in the bend of the river where he’d once taken her stargazing, but Jake ignored the dirt road along the river and drove across the bridge. A mile further, he took the turnoff to the small airfield.

Wondering what he had in mind, Heather teased, “You’re taking me to have breakfast in a smelly hangar?”

Jake gave her a look, another of those secretive half-smiles quirking his lips. “Something like that.”

Heather tried to read his expression, but Jake’s face revealed nothing more, so she shifted the heavy basket into a more comfortable position and waited for whatever was going to happen.

The airfield wasn’t far from the highway, and it was only a couple of minutes before Jake was parking next to the hangar that housed the old Air Tractor. He’d bought the plane to replace the crop duster he’d wrecked during the siege, and they’d been working on it for the past couple months. The plane was supposed to start off his new aviation business: the fulfillment of a long-term ambition he’d once admitted he’d dreamed about since before college. Someday, they hoped, there’d be a small fleet of planes, and he’d be able to offer flight lessons and charters as well. For the moment, all they had was an old, decrepit crop duster that hadn’t even been re-certified yet.

“Come on.” Jake took the basket from her and guided her around the building. Much to Heather’s surprise, the hangar doors stood open and the small plane was sitting on the tarmac in front of them. As Jake began to steer her toward the aircraft, it suddenly dawned on her, and she stopped dead in her tracks.

“You want to take me flying?”

“Yes.” He turned around to look at her, grinning, but his smile faltered a little at something he must’ve seen in her expression. “What? Don’t tell me you’ve never flown before?”

“No… Yes… I mean….”

He laughed. “You haven’t!”

A little put out, she glared at him. Just because he had seen the world, that was no reason to poke fun at her.

He caught her expression, and he held up his hands placatingly. “Hey, I’m not making fun of you. It’s just,” he shrugged, “you did pick a pilot for a boyfriend.”

Heather found herself smiling back despite herself. Put like that, it was kind of ironic. She gestured at the crop duster. “Is that thing even safe?”

Jake took a step toward her and, putting a finger beneath her chin, turned her face away from the plane and up to meet his gaze. “Would I do anything to put you in danger?”

She snorted—I can think of a few occasions—and he gave a rueful chuckle. “You know what I mean.”

He let go of her chin and wrapped an arm around her shoulders, nudging her to walk with him. Reluctantly, she started moving again.

“Look, it’s fine. You worked on the engine yourself, and you’re the best mechanic I know.” He squeezed her shoulder. “The FAA certified her Friday. I didn’t tell you ’cause I wanted to surprise you.” They’d reached the aircraft and he pulled open the door to stash the picnic basket in the small space behind the pilot’s seat. “Plus, it’s a clear day, there’s almost no wind and the visibility’s good. It’s perfectly safe to go up.” He turned back to her and met her gaze. “Trust me.”

She sighed, knowing that when he gave her that look, she could never resist. And she did trust him. If Jake said the plane was safe, who was she to argue?

“Alright.” The way his eyes lit up as she agreed made her feel better at her decision already, and she couldn’t help but smile back as he helped her into the passenger seat and told her how to strap in and tighten the seat belt.

It took several minutes before he joined her in the plane, during which he walked around inspecting it as part of his pre-flight check, something that reassured her even further. Once he got into the pilot’s seat, he handed her a pair of large earphones. “Put these on,” he told her, putting a similar pair on his own head. “It’s gonna be noisy, and this way we can still talk.”

She nodded, chewing her lip a little apprehensively while she adjusted the headphones until they sat comfortably.

“You alright?” Jake’s voice, loud in her ears, caused her to start, and she nodded again, clasping her hands tightly in her lap. He twisted around in his seat until he could catch her eye. “Look, if you really don’t want to do this…?”

Heather shook her head. “No. It’s… I’m fine. Let’s go.” She wasn’t gonna chicken out now, not after all the trouble Jake had gone through to surprise her. She chuckled wryly to herself. Well, the surprise part had certainly worked well….

She didn’t dare speak or even move while Jake concentrated on taxiing the plane away from the hangar. A moment later, they were bouncing along the runway, picking up speed, and then her stomach lurched as they lifted into the sky with a jolt. The plane climbed steadily, pressing her deeper into her seat, and the airfield grew smaller and smaller. At last the aircraft leveled off and Jake glanced in her direction again.

“You okay?”

“Yeah…” She cautiously snuck a quick look out of the window on her right. Far below, the trees had turned to dollhouse-sized proportions, and she spotted several white dots in a meadow. It took her a moment to realize they were cows. Gathering her courage and pulling herself up a little straighter, she leaned closer to the window for a better view. In the distance, the Tacoma river glistened in the sunlight. Jake tilted the control stick and the plane banked her way as they entered a wide turn.

“Look ahead.”

Heather pulled her gaze away from the ground below, and peered off into the distance, unsure what he wanted her to see. Jake pointed. “On the horizon. See?” White-capped peaks appeared to be hovering above the earth, glowing in the morning light, far, far away.

“Are those…?”

She caught his nod from the corner of her eye.

“Yeah. The Rockies. You can only see them on very clear days in winter. Like today.”

“It’s…” She swallowed. She understood why he’d been so eager to take her up. “It’s beautiful, Jake!”

Jake gave her a long sideways look, clearly pleased at her reaction. Shortly after they’d got together, she’d learned how important her happiness was to him, yet it still gave her a thrill every time she was reminded that there was someone who would put her well-being before their own. Sometimes, it even frightened her a little. She longed to reach out and kiss him, to let him know how happy he made her, but she figured that probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do when the person you wanted to kiss was piloting a single-prop crop duster. So she settled for giving him a grateful smile and squeezing his shoulder.

He brought the plane back down lower . They were flying mostly without speaking—Jake had been right: the engine created a terrible racket—while he occasionally pointed out some of the landmarks: the Tacoma bridge, Stanley’s farm, the town of Jericho, the church on Main Street glowing white in the early sun.

“And that’s the ranch.” He indicated a small, toy-sized wooden house. She could see the horses milling in the paddock.

“It’s so… small.”

He laughed at that, and she grinned back. Of course things were small when viewed from so high up in the air. Still, it was as if she could just reach out and pick up the houses and put them somewhere else.

“So.” Jake broke through her reverie and she blinked at him. “Let’s have that breakfast, shall we?”

His suggestion reminded her she hadn’t had any food yet, something she’d totally forgotten in the wonder of flying. “Where? Here?”

He chortled, shaking his head. “No. I know a place….”

They headed west for several minutes, Jericho and the river slowly falling away behind them. Low hills rose in the landscape, and Jake indicated a dirt strip in a shallow valley. “There.”

“What?” She gaped at him. “But that’s…. Jake, that’s not an airport. You can’t land there!”

He gave her a broad grin. “Sure can. It’s an old airstrip that my grandfather used to take me to sometimes to go deer hunting.”

She glanced out at the airstrip again. It looked as narrow as a crayon stripe on a map. “But….”

He offered her a more serious look. “That’s one of the advantages of these small planes. You can land them just about anywhere. Hang on, it could be a little bumpy.”

Before she could raise any more objections, Jake pushed the nose down, and Heather grabbed on to the seat, holding it tight enough that her knuckles grew white. They bounced once as the wheels touched the ground, and then the plane settled, slowing rapidly as they bumped along the strip of uneven earth. The silence seemed almost palpable when Jake shut off the engine. Heather slowly removed the headphones, heart thudding in her throat and her fingers trembling a little. She took a deep breath. “Listen, Jake Green—”

Jake twisted around and leaned over his seat, silencing her protest with a kiss. He reached out with one hand to tangle his fingers in her hair and pull her closer. Heather’s anxiety melted away, and she sighed into his mouth, before he pulled back.

“Come on. Something else I’d like to show you.” He helped her out of the plane, and she was grateful to have firm ground under her feet again.

After reaching back into the plane and getting the basket with their food, Jake took her hand and guided her up the closest hill. It wasn’t a steep climb, nor was it very long, and she was hardly out of breath when they reached the summit.

“This is what I wanted you to see.” Jake swept a hand in a wide arc to take in the landscape at their feet. Corn and soybean fields, most bare for winter, stretched out as far as the eye could see, the endless view only broken by the grain silos of the handful of farms that dotted the horizon. A sliver of silver glistened in the distance: a narrow band twisting across the land. “That’s the Tacoma river,” Jake explained. Heather raised a hand over her eyes to block out the sun, drinking in the view. She didn’t think she’d ever seen Kansas look so amazing.

There was a soft chuckle behind her, drawing her back to the here and now. “Hey, I thought you were hungry?”

She turned back to see he’d spread a blanket out over the coarse grass and was lifting containers from the basket. He held up a thermos. “Coffee?”

“Please.” She took the flask and poured some for each of them, and then warmed her hands around her cup. Despite the sun and the near windless day, it was still cold, and she was glad for the thick coat and hat he’d made her put on.

She settled herself next to him on the blanket and started to open the containers and unwrap the tin foil. “Wow…. You don’t do things half, do you?” He’d brought toast and butter, marmalade, pancakes, and boiled eggs. She also discovered homemade fruit preserves, and sausages and cheese, and even a piece of chocolate cake.

He smirked, offering her a slice of buttered toast. “Expected you might be hungry by now.”

They ate, mostly in silence, though at one point Jake nudged her and whispered, “Look.” Following where he pointed, Heather caught sight of the lone deer that had appeared at the foot of the hill. It grazed the winter-yellowed grass before some noise or other spooked it and it bounded away in high, long strides. It was good to see the wildlife was finding its way back into to West Kansas after nearly being wiped out during that long, horrible winter after the bombs.

Finally, fully sated, she lay back, soaking in the sun and gazing up at the pale blue sky, where a bird of prey circled high overhead.

Sensing she was being watched, she twisted her head slightly. Jake was on his side next to her, his head cradled in one hand as he gazed down at her. Something in the way he looked at her made her heart leap and heat pool low in her belly. “What?”

He smiled. “I was just thinking—” He reached over with his free hand, trailing it up along her jean-clad thigh and the shiver that ran through her had nothing to do with the cold, “—that it’s a real shame it’s a little too cold for me to ask you to get out of those clothes.” He’d reached her hip and rested his palm there.

“Then maybe—.” She gasped when his thumb made its way under the edge of her jacket and sweater, brushing along the naked skin of her belly. His fingers were cold, but they left a trail of fire. She shivered again, gulping at the smoldering desire in his gaze. “Maybe you should bring me back here when it’s warmer?”

“Yeah.” He grinned at her. “I guess I should….” He leaned in to capture her mouth in a kiss and she responded eagerly. Beneath their hill, the deer reappeared to nibble on the grass some more. Neither Jake nor Heather noticed the animal, their attention fully focused elsewhere….