Heartsent

The balloon seems to stand still in the air

while the earth flies past underneath.

~Alberto Santos Dumont

Chapter One

 “May I have a large lemonade, a funnel cake with strawberries, and a large vanilla ice cream cone with chocolate sprinkles, please?” The little girl staring up at Lina couldn’t have been more than ten. A gust of wind toyed with the curly light brown hair outlining a petite heart-shaped face and ruffled the crisp twenty-dollar bill she held in her hand. She tightened her grip.

Lina glanced over the crowded midway but saw no sign of an adult accompanying the little girl. Normally, it wouldn’t have been a problem. After all, the girl obviously could pay for her order. But in the last hour or so the child had presented herself three times to the Sweet Treats kiosk Lina manned for the Salem Hills Fire Department, and she began to wonder if the little girl was lost.

With the location of Sweet Treats in the center of the Salem Hills, Virginia Founder’s Day festivities, Lina had a good view of the entire fair. To her right, the entrance to the rides, and to her left, the hawkers with their game booths. Behind her stood more concession stands with variations on fair food; popcorn and snow cones, cotton candy, hotdogs and fries. But Sweet Treats had the best place, right at the center of the midway, the first of the food kiosks. And they had the most popular delicacies, too; the fresh-squeezed lemonade, the funnel cakes with fruit and sugar, the elephant ears, the deep fried Oreos, and the hand-dipped ice cream.

Lina speculated the Sweet Treats kiosk alone was probably responsible for more stomachaches and incidents that shut down rides for cleaning than all the other food concessions combined. It amazed her to see this little girl making her third purchase of junk food in less than sixty minutes. That just might qualify her for a cast iron stomach award. Lina placed her elbows on the counter and assessed the girl. She seemed okay so far.

So with a shake of the head, Lina filled a cup with lemonade, dished up a funnel cake with strawberries, and scooped vanilla ice cream into a waffle cone then added chocolate sprinkles to the top. She accepted the twenty and handed her young customer the order and her change.

“Thank you,” said the little girl, taking a sip of lemonade.

“You’re very welcome. I hope you’re having a good time at the Founder’s Day Fair.” Lina smiled but the little girl had already scampered into the crowd.

From the corner of her eye, Lina caught sight of paramedic Greg Fiskar taking tickets at the giant Ferris wheel. He lifted a hand in a casual wave and she smiled back. She was well aware he was interested in dating her, though he had yet to ask her out. She hoped he never did. Greg was a great guy, but Lina felt no chemistry with him beyond friendship.

Besides, she didn’t date within her unit. Dating always changed everything. It was hard to go back to being friends after dating. Impossible to be taken seriously as a fellow firefighter after playing tonsil hockey with a coworker. And so what if her rule had earned her a slightly unflattering nickname? She wanted to keep her assignment, so the fact that the Salem Hills Fire Department frowned upon fraternization only made sticking to her no-dating-coworkers rule easier.

And anyway, if she was going to break that rule—not that she was going to—someone else had piqued her interest from the first day they’d worked together.

The cheering petered out over near the petting zoo. The piglet races must have ended. A roar and a splash from somewhere behind her told Lina someone had scored in the Dunk-A-Clown booth. A line of customers began to form in front of her again; fair-goers who needed to re-hydrate and re-fuel so they could get back to the serious business of having fun. Lina greeted them with a smile and busied herself with the task of taking and filling orders.

Just as the last customer stepped up to the window, Lina’s eyes were drawn to a swatch of nylon in stripes of blue, red, and green rising into view over the bleachers at the baseball field. Soon a giant Smiley face joined the hovering rainbow, and then a blue and white behemoth resembling a stuffed Greek flag floated upward. The hot-air balloons were going up for the first flights of the day. She had no idea why anyone would want to ride in a basket suspended beneath a bag of hot air. Not just because they glided so high off the ground but the very thought of how they rose into the air at all, using an open flame to heat the inside of a flammable nylon bag, was too risky in Lina’s opinion.

Still, when they rose, all silent and majestic, for some reason, Lina always felt compelled to stop and watch.

Her customer cleared his throat in a subtle reminder of his presence. More people had lined up behind him while she’d been distracted.

“Sorry,” she murmured. “How can I help you?”

She took the next several orders on autopilot, her attention primarily focused on the floating bubbles of color rising from the ball field. By the time the balloons had melted into the distant horizon, the line at Sweet Treats had dwindled to nothing, and Lina picked up a sponge to wipe the counter.

“Excuse me,” said a familiar child’s voice. “I’d like a deep fried Oreo and a large vanilla ice cream cone with chocolate sprinkles, please.”

Lina bent over the counter and looked the little girl in the eyes. “Don’t you think you’ve had enough junk food? Maybe you should consider a hot dog or at least some nachos.”

“No, thank you.” The little girl spoke in a solemn tone, as if she placed the most important order of her life. “Just the deep fried Oreo and large vanilla ice cream cone with chocolate sprinkles, please.”

Lina considered the little girl. Once again, she came alone and clutched another crisp twenty, something else that struck Lina as strange. But the girl wasn’t in apparent danger and hadn’t done anything wrong. Lina set about filling her order.

This time when she handed the little girl her change, the child didn’t run off. Instead, she stood regarding Lina with a steady stare.

“Can I get you something else?” asked Lina. “A napkin maybe?”

She noticed the girl had started to nibble on the deep fried Oreo but the ice cream remained untouched.

“I have an extra ticket for the hot-air balloon ride,” said the little girl. “Would you go on it with me?” Her voice lowered to a whisper and she leaned forward. “I’m a little scared.”

Lina’s heart gave her a hard kick to the chest. “Um, I…” She hesitated, not particularly willing to admit her own fears to the child. “I really can’t leave the booth right now.”

The child sucked on her upper lip. “But the other girl will get here at three o’clock and the balloon ride is at four o’clock, so you can do it then.”

Lina blinked and took a step back. How did this little girl have such a good grasp of her schedule? The Founder’s Day Festival had been open for four days and Lina had worked the same shift at the Sweet Treats kiosk since the festival had opened, but she didn’t recall seeing the little girl before today. She was being silly, of course. It wasn’t like the girl posed an overt threat. Still, it made Lina feel a tad weird, because apparently someone had been watching her.

She had no intention of going on a balloon ride in any case, but she could let the little girl down easily. “Maybe your mom or dad would go up with you.”

The little girl shook her head and heaved a heartfelt sigh. “They’re in the navy and they’re both deployed. I’m here with my uncle.”

Lina’s heart sank. To be without one parent was tough, but for both parents to be gone had to really hurt. She glanced out at the midway again, but didn’t see anyone who looked like he might be the girl’s uncle, so she returned her attention to the child.

“My name’s Lina.”

The little girl grinned. “I know. You’re Lina Standish. My uncle told me. Are you really a firefighter?”

“Yes, I am,” said Lina absently. How did the girl’s uncle know her? Lina drew her brow up tight. As she concentrated on figuring out just who this mysterious uncle could be, she almost missed the little girl’s next words.

“My name’s Amelia.”

“Hi, Amelia. It’s nice to meet you,” Lina said with a smile. “I’ve got an idea. Maybe your uncle can go up in the balloon with you.”

But the little girl shook her head again. “He makes it scarier.” She spoke softly, looking around as if afraid someone would overhear. Her blue eyes were wide and she stopped chewing her deep fried Oreo to worry at her upper lip instead.

Visions of an old man taunting the child, preying on her fear as a way to torment her made Lina pause, and she found herself nodding in understanding. She had a much older brother who still enjoyed teasing her, and his jibes weren’t always pleasant.

At Lina’s nod, Amelia pounced. “Then you will?”

“What? Huh?”

“You nodded yes!” Amelia skipped off, disappearing into the crowd. “I’ll be back at three o’clock.”

“Wait! That’s not what…I meant.” Lina stared after the little girl and sighed. She didn’t even know Amelia’s last name. Maybe she wouldn’t return.

But what if she did? Would Lina be able to overcome her own fear in order to spare the engaging child the trip with an uncaring uncle?

 ****

 “Here you go!” Amelia held out a waffle cone with slightly droopy vanilla ice cream and chocolate sprinkles. “Can I go on the Octopus now?”

Kevin surveyed the little girl standing in front of him with a critical eye. Dark brown pieces of deep fried Oreo clung to one corner of her mouth. She’d obviously eaten it in a hurry.

“Are you sure you don’t want to wait a few minutes? Let some of that junk food settle?”

“Uncle Kevin!” Amelia stomped her foot. “You promised unlimited rides. Remember?”

He crouched down to her level to get a better look at her face. “I just don’t want you to get sick on the rides, okay?”

Amelia laid a hand on his shoulder. “I don’t get sick on rides. You know that.”

Then she gave him one of those sun-eclipsing smiles of hers and he lost his half-hearted protest. He’d do anything for her when she smiled. Unfortunately, Amelia apparently knew that and frequently made use of it.

He stood with a sigh. If the guys knew he could be run so easily by a ten-year-old, he’d never hear the end of it. “Go on, then.”

She continued to regard him, a solemn expression on her face.

“You need something else?” he asked.

“I’m out of tickets. You should have sprung for the unlimited rides wrist band.”

Kevin slid his hand into his back pocket and withdrew his wallet. He pulled out another twenty, glad they’d made a well-timed stop at the ATM before they hit the fairgrounds.

Amelia scurried off and Kevin turned his attention on the Sweet Treats concession stand. He took a lick of his ice cream, appreciating the coolness on his suddenly dry throat. Lina bent forward over the counter to hand a swirl of pink and blue cotton candy to a little girl about Amelia’s age. He couldn’t hear what she said, but she kept smiling and the sight nearly undid his resolve to follow through on the plan.

Only one other person besides Amelia had the ability to get to Kevin with just a smile. And he was staring at her. Lina Standish. She flicked one of her braids over her shoulder before she dipped an ice cream cone. On anyone else, those twin braids falling from the sides of her head might seem tomboyish and adolescent. Kevin only knew he wanted to tug one, and then maybe take them both down. He’d seen her only one time with her hair down. And he’d been looking at other attributes at the time.

Amelia’s small body slammed into him. Wind had ruffled her hair and excitement had painted her cheeks ruddy.

“I’m finished riding for now. Come on.” With strength that amazed him, she pushed him in the direction of the ball field. “You have to go get ready.”

Kevin blinked and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. Had he been standing and watching Lina for that long?

 ****

 At five minutes to three, two people arrived at the Sweet Treats kiosk. EMT Diane Huffman, Lina’s replacement for the evening shift, got there first. Amelia showed up moments later. She carried yet another twenty-dollar bill as she stepped up to the counter.

“May I have a small lemonade and a large vanilla ice cream cone with chocolate sprinkles, please?”

“I’ve got this one,” murmured Lina to Diane. She filled a cup with lemonade and dipped the ice cream into the cone then added the sprinkles. Grabbing a bottle of water for herself, she took the order with her, and exited the kiosk.

“Okay, Amelia, here’s your order.”

The girl finished off the tart lemonade in several large sips without even cracking a sour face and ended with a smack of her lips. “You make the best lemonade.”

A chuckled bubbled up from Lina’s throat. “Now, maybe I should meet your uncle before we go up in the balloon.”

“Oh, you will. Come on!” Amelia placed the empty lemonade cup in the trash, took hold of Lina’s hand, and tugged in the direction of the hot-air balloons. The child carried the ice cream cone with great care as they raced through the crowd, but Lina noticed she didn’t take one lick.

Amelia set a rapid pace and soon they were bypassing the long line of people waiting for a turn at a hot-air balloon ride. Lina slowed their quick progression forward, pulling on Amelia’s hand to get her attention.

“Amelia, you can’t cut in line. We have to wait like the other people here.”

“We’re not cutting. I have a special pass.” She picked up speed again, her surprisingly strong grip forcing Lina to stumble behind.

As they approached a balloon constructed in an intricate pattern of rainbow-hued swirls, Lina looked up…and up…and up. Her stomach tightened and her throat squeezed. With immense effort, she managed to draw in a huge gulp of air.

Amelia stopped at a set of steps next to the gondola. “You get in first.”

“Oh, I don’t think—I mean we can’t just get in. We have to wait for the pilot.”

Amelia giggled. “He’s right there.” Still carrying the ice cream she’d ordered, Amelia pointed with her chin.

Lina shifted her gaze, instantly captivated by the especially nice rear view of the man fiddling with the settings on the balloon’s burner. Sun-kissed brown hair just teased the top of a black T-shirt, which enfolded its wearer in a snug embrace from broad shoulders all the way down to narrow hips and a firm backside clad in tight faded blue jeans.

Amelia dropped Lina’s hand and gave her a little push. Still a little bemused and charmed by the eye candy already on board, Lina stepped up and into the gondola. She reached out a shaky hand to steady herself.

Oh, I hope I don’t regret this. It would be horrible to make a fool of herself in front of the little girl, even worse to do so in front of the pilot.

“Hold this.” Amelia thrust the ice cream cone into Lina’s hands. Of course, she’d need both hands to climb aboard, wouldn’t she?

Only she didn’t climb into the basket. She took off down the steps instead.

“Wait! Amelia, come back!” Lina balanced the ice cream cone awkwardly in one hand, determined not to make a mess while she climbed back over the edge of the gondola.

The child turned and laughed. “Did I do okay, Uncle Kevin?”

Uncle Kevin?

“Perfect delivery, Meelie Bug!” called the balloon pilot.

Lina recognized that voice! She whirled and looked into the laughing blue eyes of her firefighting partner…who happened to have a special taste for vanilla ice cream with chocolate sprinkles. Her memory flashed to the countless times she’d seen him with an ice cream cone while lounging around the station during rec time.

The water bottle slipped from Lina’s fingers and tumbled over the edge of the basket. Her jaw went slack. After a moment she remembered to blink.

“Thanks for the Sweet Treat.” With the flash of a grin, her companion lifted the cone from Lina’s unresisting fingers and indulged himself with a long stroke of his tongue over the ice cream. Lina’s mind rather inconveniently presented her with possibilities of other things that pink tongue might like to indulge in and she closed her mouth with a click of her teeth.

Spurred by indignation, Lina clamped her hands on her hips. “Kevin Daly, if you think you’re going to take me for a ride in this thing, you can re-think your plan!” She thrust her leg over the edge of the basket only to pull it back quickly with a little squeal when she realized they were already more than a full story off the ground.

“Relax.” Kevin winked. “We’re going to enjoy a nice, smooth ride together. Want a lick?” He offered the ice cream cone in Lina’s direction.

Relax? Lina’s heart threatened to burst from her chest. I’m floating in a basket being held up by nothing more than hot air with the department’s hottest eligible male. The only man to ever see her naked. Well, maybe not naked, but close enough. She’d been wrapped in a towel and ready to take a shower after a call-out.

“Ah…ah…no thanks,” she choked past the stricture blocking her throat.

Kevin gave a careless shrug and took another long lick. “Suit yourself.”

Panic washed through her system and leaked out in a squeaky voice. “I can’t do this.”

He raised an eyebrow and bit into his waffle cone. “Of course you can. In fact, you’re doing it.”

“No.” Lina repositioned her hand more securely. “I can’t. I’m afraid of—these things.”

“You? Afraid of a few yards of nylon?” He raked her with a skeptical glance.

“It’s not the nylon. It’s—it’s…It’s the long fall if something goes wrong. What if the nylon rips or it…” Catches fire!

With his free hand, Kevin made an adjustment to a valve. A burst of flame erupted from the burner, the sound blasting into the air. Lina jumped, and glanced upward, assessing the distance between the open flame and the nylon. When had the last hot-air balloon accident occurred? Hadn’t that been only a few years ago? She lowered her gaze to find Kevin watching her, an irritating half-smile curving his lips.

He shifted his eyes upward for a moment then met hers again and pulled his mouth into a grin. “It’s not going to catch fire, if that’s what you’re worried about. The mouth of the envelope is made of Nomex.” He turned his attention back to the control panel and pushed a button. The burner flared again.

She fought to keep her voice even, aware she fell way short. “Stop doing that!”

Kevin spared her a glance over his shoulder. “Sorry, can’t stop. I have to get us up to cruising altitude so we can catch the air current and reach our landing zone.”

“Are you insane?” Aware she sounded like a squeaking mouse, Lina didn’t care. “I’m not flying with you. Land us right here. Right now!”

Kevin leaned over the edge of the basket and looked down. “I would have to agree with your assessment of insanity if I attempted to land right now.” He shrugged and leveled a look on Lina. “On the other hand, I could lower the heat and maybe bring us down enough for you to jump.” His grin reminded Lina of a leering Halloween jack-o-lantern. “You passed your swim quals, didn’t you?”

“My swim—why?” She twisted slowly and chanced a look over the side of the gondola, yelping when she saw Black Mountain Lake glistening below them. They were roughly over the middle of the sprawling hundred-acre lake, and while Lina probably could have easily made the swim to shore, she somehow didn’t think Kevin had been serious about letting her jump out of the basket. At least she hoped not. What altitude would he consider low enough for that?

“It might be interesting…finally seeing you wet.”

She gaped. Was he seriously bringing up the shower incident?

Kevin’s explosion into laughter fueled her annoyance, but she remained speechless. With narrowed eyes, Lina closed her mouth and glared, willing him to shut up.

He stopped laughing but he didn’t shut up. Instead he spoke, his voice soft as a caress. “I’ve wanted to ask you out for over a year now, you know.”

“What? One incident in a towel and you developed an interest in dating me?”

His grin widened as he raked a blistering gaze over her. “You’ve got it backwards. I wanted to date you until I saw you in a towel.”

“Huh?” He hadn’t liked what he’d glimpsed? That should give her happy thoughts, right? So why did it niggle at her? She narrowed her gaze.

His soft chuckle brought warmth flooding into her face. “There you were looking so gorgeous I could barely speak.”

“Gorgeous?” Now she knew he was messing with her. “I’d just come in off a call. I looked a mess.”

Kevin shook his head. “That’s not what I saw.”

“Yeah, I know what you saw, bud.” She’d been covered in grime and soot from a long hard fight with a fire but the towel around her hadn’t covered much of that—or anything else for that matter.

“Hey, how was I supposed to know you had dibs on the first shower? No one clued me in.” Kevin leaned against the edge of the basket.

The breath caught in Lina’s throat. Could he fall out? And what would she do if he did?

“So, ah…” She really wished he’d stop leaning. “You never heard of ladies first?”

As if reading her mind, Kevin straightened. But then he took a step in her direction, heat flaring in his eyes. “You’re right.” He skimmed the backs of his knuckles down her cheek. “I wasn’t being very gentlemanly back then, was I?”

Lina’s heart stammered and a weird fluttery feeling in her stomach overshadowed her annoyance. “I don’t suppose you’ve ever heard of just coming right out and asking for a date? Because that would be too easy, wouldn’t it? So, you felt the need to kidnap me?”

“I didn’t kidnap you. I just got your attention in a creative way.” Kevin adjusted another setting and popped the last of his ice cream cone into his mouth while the burner blasted. He finished chewing before he spoke again. “You don’t date coworkers.”

Well, he had that much right. And since he was her partner and she liked working with him, he should have been at the top of her do not date list. Still…she might have made an exception for Kevin Daly if he’d asked—except he hadn’t bothered to ask. He must have inquired about her, though, if he was aware of her no-dating-colleagues rule.

“You’re right, I don’t. You do know what they call me around the firehouse?”

Kevin’s right hand clenched into a fist and he looked into the distance. Slowly, as though with great effort, he relaxed the hand. “Yeah, I know. And I think they’re wrong. I don’t think you’re the least standoffish.” He spoke quietly, without looking at her.

Lina found herself surprised by his attitude, almost as if he actually cared. “But I am standoffish. I have a hard and fast rule against dating within the house.”

“I know.”

“So why would you bother to pull a stunt like this?”

“I told you—to get your attention. Some people are easier to ask out on a date than others.”

Lina blew out an exasperated breath. “This isn’t a date. I don’t date from within the department. And you didn’t ask me. I’m your—your hostage.”

“Oh come on, now.” Kevin shifted his weight and checked another gauge. “The last thing you are is a hostage. After all, you climbed on board willingly.”

“Because I thought I’d be saving a child from the merciless teasing of a mean old uncle.”

Kevin looked away but not before Lina caught sight of his lips twitching into a smile.

“Yeah, I can see I was played very effectively.”

Kevin sniggered. “Several ice cream cones and assorted treats, thirty bucks. Assistance from a willing niece for the cost of a few rides, another fifty. The indignant look on the reluctant date’s face, priceless.”

“I. Am. Not. Your. Date.” Lina stomped her foot. The gondola rocked violently at the movement. With a cry, she widened her stance and grabbed an upright strut for support. As her heart continued its staccato rhythm, she gulped in another deep breath. Then another.

“If you keep hyperventilating, you’ll pass out.” It was a casual observation tossed over his shoulder as if he didn’t care one way or the other.

Lina narrowed her eyes and glared at his back. “Well, I guess that would ruin your date, then, wouldn’t it?” But she forced herself to slow her breathing.

He finished fiddling with the gauges and turned, cocking his head to one side. “You’re cute when you’re ticked off. I’ll bet you’re cuter when you relax.”

“There’s that word again. Maybe I don’t want to relax. Maybe I like being ticked off at you.”

“Me?” Kevin pointed at himself. Then he shook his head. “Naw. You don’t want to be ticked off at me. I’m the pilot. We tend to do crazy things when people get ticked off at us.” He pushed a switch and the burner burst into life, the flame shooting up higher than it had previously. The balloon jerked, bounced, and abruptly rose at a disturbing rate.

“What are you doing?” Alarmed, Lina released one hand and swiped at Kevin, missing him by inches but unable to bring herself to let go of the gondola. She pictured dumping him over the edge but ruled that out as a real possibility when she considered she’d only be in worse straits. So she settled for glowering at him.

Kevin nodded at one of the instruments. “Still getting us up to altitude is all.”

Lina continued her narrow-eyed stare but held her tongue.

Stepping away from the controls, Kevin stood in front of her, no more than a foot and a half away. The basket, already too small as far as Lina was concerned, seemed to shrink.

“Why don’t you try getting comfortable?” he asked softly. “You might end up liking it.”

“Liking it? Liking what? Floating under a bubble of hot air?”

Kevin spread his hands and swayed from foot to foot. The basket swung gently. “It’s not so bad. Think of it as a baby rocking in a cradle.”

“Yeah, the rocking cradle in the nursery song fell, remember?” Lina dared another look over the edge at the glistening water.

“Lina.” His voice softened, became more calm and persuasive. “I’m not going to let anything happen to you. Won’t you trust me?” He gestured to the space between them. “Give this a chance?”

Maybe it was the gentler tone in his voice. Or maybe it was the appealing way his hair blew across his forehead. On the other hand, it was probably his heart-stopping, lopsided smile that showed off the dimple to the left of his mouth. But Lina felt her anger dissipating, and with her anger, her fear started to slip away as well. But was Kevin talking about the balloon ride? Or something more?

“Fine.” She eased her grip on the strut and crossed her arms in front of herself, dropping them again when she saw his gaze follow the motion and settle on her chest. Her face burned as though on fire. So did the rest of her. “How long until we land?”

Kevin looked out at the horizon and then checked his wristwatch. “About an hour and a half to the landing zone.”

“An hour and a half!” He had to be joking. “I thought we’d just go up and fly in a circle then return to the ball field.”

Kevin’s chuckle was a cross between evil and gleeful. “We follow the wind, babe. The landing zone is set up in Appomattox County.”

“That far away?” Lina allowed herself a moment of panic. “But—but, what about Amelia? You can’t leave her at the fair that long. It’s not safe.”

“Meelie Bug’s fine. My mom’s there. She’ll watch out for her.”

“So she’s really your niece?”

“Yep, my brother, Matt’s kid.”

And she hadn’t sounded a bit frightened when she’d called out to Uncle Kevin, either. Lina scowled at him. “I can’t believe you used your niece in your scheme.”

Kevin shrugged. “Actually, it was her idea.”

“Uh-huh. You expect me to believe that?” Somehow, Lina couldn’t see Kevin Daly taking dating advice from a pre-teen.

“It’s true, I swear.” Kevin drew a cross over his heart. “I mentioned I wanted to find a way to ask you out but I thought you’d say no, and she suggested I take you on a surprise balloon ride. She even bet me she could get you to the balloon herself.”

Lina felt her lips pulling into a smile. “A bet, huh?” She hoped Amelia had drained his cash reserves. “And you found yourself working out this plan with a pre-adolescent girl why, exactly?”

Kevin averted his gaze to look over the horizon. “You should come up here and look at the view. It’s awesome.”

Lina grunted and looked down at her feet. It wasn’t lost on her that he hadn’t answered her question. Kevin could and routinely did date some stunningly attractive women. With her plain old brown hair and brown eyes and taller than average height, she wasn’t even in the same league as the women he took out. So why hadn’t he ever approached her himself, if he was so hot for a date? Even if he did know about her rule, somehow, he didn’t seem the type to be thwarted by such a simple obstacle. She glanced up again to find him watching her from behind a pair of aviator sunglasses he’d donned at some point. She didn’t have a clue what thoughts played in his mind.

An hour and a half of uncomfortable silence. Lovely. Lina eyed the propane tanks as another thought occurred to her. “You got enough in there to keep us floating that long?” At first she’d worried about the flame and the nylon. Now she wondered what would happen if they suddenly dropped from the sky.

Well, aren’t you a bag of contradiction? Lina shook her head, tired of her own thoughts. They tended to get her into trouble anyway.

“More than enough.” Kevin tapped one of the canisters with the tips of his fingers. “Got extra igniters, too, in case we flame out.”

“Flame…what? Oh!” Lina shuddered. He wasn’t serious. He couldn’t be. But she noted the equipment secured to the walls of the gondola; propane tanks, something resembling a flame thrower, and a fire extinguisher. He did seem to have all the contingencies covered. She relaxed, but only a little.

“Come on, you’re here now. You may as well enjoy the view.” He held out his hand in an invitation to join him.

Lina edged from her side of the basket. She wanted to ignore his outstretched hand, but the basket swayed with her movement, and she found herself clutching at him instead. Somehow, she ended up in the center of Kevin’s embrace, where each breath she drew filled her nostrils with the scent of ocean breeze mingled with sandalwood. It was a heady fragrance and made her crave things she shouldn’t be craving on a first date. Like the touch of his hands all over her body and the press of his lips in secret places.

And, she reminded herself, this was not a date.

Apparently oblivious to her inner struggle, Kevin settled his arms around Lina’s waist and turned her so she could look out over the landscape while he stood behind her. His breath fanned the back of her neck, raising her awareness of him and sending hot electrical charges along her spine in waves.

She felt unsteady again, but for entirely different reasons than because she currently soared through the sky. She reasserted her death grip on the edge of the gondola.

“Relax,” he murmured.

“I am relaxed,” whispered Lina gazing out over the landscape. Don’t look down. Don’t look down.

“Not yet you aren’t, but you will be.” He shifted to cover her hands on the basket edge and squeezed lightly. Lina trembled at the skin-on-skin contact, somehow even more intimate than his touch on her waist, but she forced herself to lighten her death grip.

She sighed and allowed herself to enjoy the sight of the world from this new perspective. Beauty and peace surrounded her, with only the whistle of the wind as they flew and the occasional hiss of the flame when Kevin made an adjustment.

They left the lake behind and soared toward the center of Old River Valley. The shadow of the balloon slid over treetops and the roofs of houses and barns. They glided over a herd of Black Angus cattle grazing contentedly in a field dotted with pale gray limestone. The warmth of the sun’s glow was balanced by the cool upper level breeze as they clipped along.

Kevin stepped back and Lina turned her head, watching him adjust a gauge. When he returned, she averted her gaze but knew he’d caught her watching him. With a soft laugh, he ran his hands up her arms to her shoulders, turning her to the right and pointing. Four or five balloons chased them, colorful dots in the clear blue sky. With Kevin’s hands on her, Lina began to feel heat other than the sun working its way through her system.

When he pressed his lips at the intersection where her neck met her shoulder, Lina trembled and shifted her head the tiniest bit to grant him access. His lips painted tiny brushstrokes of liquid fire that rippled outward from where he kissed her until she felt engulfed by the flames he stoked within her.

Oh, boy. She definitely needed to reconsider her no-dating-coworkers policy.

Lina turned in Kevin’s arms and found him ready for her, his lips hot and soft as he spun a web of sensation, taking her captive. Of course, Lina had been kissed before. But until this moment, with this man, she’d never been kissed. This went far beyond any fantasy she could have dreamed up. Her insides turned to pulp as his hands roamed over her back and eased her against him. When he drew back, someone—Lina feared it might have been her—uttered a needy little mewling sound.

She raised her face to look at Kevin and her breath caught at the intensity gleaming in his eyes. As he dipped his head toward her again, she tore her gaze from his and looked at the instrument panel over his shoulder.

“Um, not that this isn’t nice, but…don’t you have to fly this thing or something?”

Kevin glanced at the instrument panel and smiled. Apparently satisfied, he held Lina still with just a look, as he touched the tips of his fingers to the ends of her braids. With agonizing slowness, he cupped her face and bent to cover her lips again.

This time, Lina settled herself against Kevin, closing her eyes and giving herself over to his touch and the vibrations swirling through her system. When Kevin finally pulled away, he released her and turned his attention to the dials and gauges on the control panel. Lina swiveled to look outward, noting they hung lower in the sky as they approached a wide expanse of meadow. The balloons that had taken off from the ball field earlier in the day occupied one side of the field, each in various stages of deflation, each with a pickup truck parked nearby.

“Has it been an hour and a half?” What was with the sudden feeling of disappointment edging its way into her awareness? She should be grateful the ride was over and she could get back to normal.

Only thing was, she wasn’t so sure she wanted things to go back to the status quo with her partner. He’d pretty effectively blown her mind with those kisses. And she’d liked the feelings he’d awakened in her. She chanced a look in his direction in time to enjoy the way the muscles of his shoulders moved as he reached over his head to tug on a lever.

Kevin lowered his arm and glanced over his shoulder. “You know what they say. About time flyin’ and fun…and all.”

Lina felt the heat creeping along her neck toward her face again. She fought against the smile drawing at her lips and lost, so she looked away to the sound of Kevin’s low, sexy laugh. But after a minute, curiosity compelled her to turn back. He wasn’t paying her any mind again, so she took the opportunity to watch him.

With an easy self-assurance, Kevin studied a set of gauges and applied a few short bursts of flame. “This keeps us in the air long enough to slide into home without tumbling,” he said in response to Lina’s unvoiced question. How did he do that? How did he figure out her thoughts almost before she experienced them?

They skidded along the ground for several feet, a bumpy ride, but they didn’t tip over. As they came to a stop, several crewmembers seemed to materialize out of nowhere and began tying off anchor lines. Kevin shut down the burner.

He cocked his head sideways, laughter in his eyes, his mouth twitching into a smile. “So what do you think about our first date?”

Lina raised an eyebrow. “First date? As in you think there’s gonna be a second date?”

Kevin’s eyes danced like twin blue flames and an easy grin slid into place. “Wow, Lina, are you asking me out?”

“That’s not—” She blinked. She had not asked Kevin Daly for a date. Had she? Maybe it had sounded like she’d just asked him out. Truth be told, the man’s double-rounded-backtalk befuddled her on a good day. Well, she could play his game. “What if I am? What if I decide what we do on our next date? Can you handle it?”

Kevin swooped in and captured her lips again. “I think I’m game to take a chance,” he said against the corner of her mouth.

“Eew, you didn’t say you were going to kiss her.”

Lina jerked in Kevin’s embrace. Amelia stood just outside the basket. “Well, if it isn’t your little wingman,” murmured Lina. She turned back to the little girl peering up at them. “Hello, Meelie Bug. I seem to have met your mean uncle after all. How did you get here?”

“Meemaw brought me. We drove the chase truck.”

Lina lifted her glance and for the first time noticed a shiny black pickup with an enclosed black trailer attached parked nearby. A trim lady with salt-and-pepper hair strode in their direction. Flicking a glance back to Kevin, she shook her head. “You brought me to meet your mother?”

Kevin lifted one shoulder and tossed his mother a wave. “It’s a family affair. So, Lina, where are we going on our second date?”

“Well, I was thinking of a pedicure or maybe a Brazilian wax.” When Kevin paled, Lina winked. “Relax. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think I’d like to go for another ride in your balloon.” She poked a finger in his chest. “Maybe.”

 

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