Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Montana Maverick by Debra Salonen Excerpt



Be careful what you wish for-
Meg Zabrinski wants a child. She's a successful scientist, a well-known environmental advocate, and a tenured professor. She doesn't need a man in her life to make this happen. But having a baby alone is a weighty decision, so she retreats to her isolated mountain cabin to write and think. When Henry Firestone--an old foe from her distant past--drops out of the sky on Christmas Eve with three young children and a baby, Meg tells herself she'd be crazy not to consider all her options--especially when she's always nursed a secret crush on the handsome rancher. Although the sparks between them ignite a mutual passion, Henry makes it clear he's done having children. Falling in love with Henry Firestone and his beautiful family would require Meg to give up her dream. Can the Lone Wolf assimilate into a new pack, or was this Big Sky Maverick meant to be alone?

They say timing is everything-
Henry Firestone doesn't recognize the "angel in snowshoes" who comes to his rescue in the middle of a blizzard, immediately, but Meg Z. knows him. Twenty years earlier, the media paired them as rivals to the death. Meg championed the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone, while Henry argued just as passionately that wolves would put ranchers on the Endangered Species List. She's still beautiful, independent and headstrong, and Henry's now free to admit that he always had a thing for her. Unfortunately, he's fighting for sole custody of his late daughter's four children. They are his biggest priority. He'd do anything to keep his family together--even sleep with the enemy in hopes that she might join his cause.


"It was dark and stormy night."
The six words taunted Meg from the blank, white page of her new document. The curser flashed. Flashed. Flashed.
"Type more inanities," it silently mocked.
Meg Zabrinski shook her head.
"If I can't do better than that, I might as well not even start," she muttered.
She used the delete key to erase the words before she set her laptop on the low table beside her recliner and got up. She'd been sitting for fifteen minutes trying to find the right opening to the young-adult novel she wanted to write. The one she'd told everyone she planned to write while on sabbatical from her job as a tenured professor of science and ecology at the University of Montana.
She paced back and forth in front of the fireplace, rubbing her chilly hands to keep the blood moving.
So maybe hiding out in a snowbound cabin high on a mountain in western Montana wasn't the best idea, but she had to do something before her entire life passed her by.
Did that sound desperate? Probably.
Was she?
Yes. Yes, she was. Desperate to do the one thing she couldn't do alone. Have a baby.
And she knew herself well enough to know that if she'd been in Missoula right now, she'd have dumped the writing project by the wayside to begin the IVF--In Vitro Fertilization--process. She'd done the research. She had the money. She wouldn't be forty for another year. If she started soon enough, she could have a baby before her next birthday in November. But...
Did she really, truly, honestly want to be a single mom? That was the question she planned to answer while she wrote her book.
Am I cut out to raise a child alone? That was the other question she had to answer.
Not that she wouldn't have the support of her family. The Zabrinski clan rallied like few others when one of their own needed help. But at the end of the day, she'd be the one who had to handle all the demands--especially the emotional side of child rearing--without a mate.
Her sister was a single mom, now. And Mia would be the first to admit motherhood was tough and parenting alone sucked at times.
Both Mia and their younger brother, Paul, who also was divorced, had had partners when their children were babies. What Meg was considering involved purchasing sperm from an anonymous donor. If the procedure worked, she'd be alone from the conception to delivery...and everything that came later.
A fierce gust of wind hit the thick, extremely well insulated walls of her log home, drawing her attention away from her dilemma. She walked toward the picture window, now hidden behind heavy, lined drapes. She felt the temperature drop just by reaching between the folds of material to peek outside.
A blast of white hit the glass making her blink. "Oh," she said, shivering. "One of those."
Montana came by its reputation for fierce winter storms honestly. This storm first arrived as shaved ice pellets--the kind that burn when it touched unprotected skin. Meg knew because she'd been topping off her firewood when the first ice crystals hit.
She stepped closer to the glass and pulled the curtains tight behind her so she could see into the night without the reflection of the light obscuring her view. Thirty-foot pines encircled her home site. Smaller babies, some already ten feet tall, bowed to the weight of the snow like peasants stooped with heavy loads on their backs. The dusk-to-dawn light at the peak of her garage roof shown like a pale white strobe.
"What a terrible night," she murmured, hurrying back to the warmth of the fire. No one in his or her right mind would go into that tempest on purpose.
Suddenly, an idea for the opening of her story began to take shape in her mind. She added another log to the fire and closed the door of the energy-efficient stove then walked to her chair.
As she reached for her laptop, she heard a peculiar, unnatural, high-pitched whine that made the hair on the back of her neck stand up.
The wind?
She opened her laptop to the blank page of her word processing program. She knew what she wanted to write but getting started was driving her mad.
Maybe all those people who told me I couldn't write a novel were right, she thought.
"Maybe I should stick to teaching," she murmured.
But her characters--children based on the Big Sky Mavericks--were so alive in her imagination. The four main protagonists may have been based on Meg and her siblings, but somewhere along the way, they'd become unique individuals with important stories to tell.
Some nights their chatter kept her awake. She'd filled a notebook with handwritten notes and scenes and descriptions. She'd ignored them as long as she could. Now was her time.
She rested her fingers on exactly the right place on the keyboard and started to type:
Jonah had a message to deliver.
Death was coming. Not the single act of the cold steely Grim Reaper. No. A massive fireball as loud and fierce as a small bomb. It would take out everyone in its path.
Suddenly, a boom, louder and scarier than the explosion in her imagination, made her house shiver. Added to the cry of the wind came a horrible screech of metal, like the hands of God twisting a bridge above her head.
Meg pressed backward into her chair, hands clenching the armrests.
Her heart beat so loudly in her ears she couldn't distinguish between the natural fierceness of the story and whatever else was going on in the skies above her.
She bolted from the chair to race to the door off the kitchen. Bracing for the worst, she stepped into the unheated mudroom. The outer door handle burned with cold, but she wrenched it open and looked outside.
No distant rumble of ice and death shaking the ground. Whatever triggered that sound, it wasn't an avalanche.
She cocked her head and closed her eyes to listen beyond the wind. An engine. An engine in trouble. Whatever the engine propelled--an airplane or helicopter, she assumed, was falling from the sky.
Death was coming. And it wasn't the death of her imagination.
She cupped the sides of her eyes and strained to squint into the dark gray of the storm. Although she couldn't see a single thing, the hair on the back of her neck rose, as the horrible grind of an engine seizing grew closer.
The mechanical scream of rotors frozen told her the aircraft was a helicopter.
"Dear God, please let whoever is on board be safe. If it's their time, take them swiftly. Don't make them suffer."
The chance of a direct hit wasn't high, but she grabbed the wood railing with her bare hands and hung on tight. Seconds later the crippled chopper reached the trees.
The crashing sounds continued for longer than Meg thought possible. When the worst of the sounds had diminished she tried her other senses to get a bead on the crash site. If she had to guess, she'd put it at a mile or more to the north. Smell revealed nothing--hopefully, it was too wet to burn.
She hurried inside and raced for her phone. Her hands were too cold to function at first. She blew on them impatiently then, finally, managed to tap out: 911.
Luckily, the installation of two cell towers, one on her side of the mountain and the other on a peak directly across from her provided remarkably good cellular reception.
"Hello? This is Dr. Mary Margaret Zabrinski. I'm wintering in my cabin at seven thousand feet. There's just now been a crash nearby. Helicopter, I think. I couldn't see anything, but I heard it coming through the trees. There may be fatalities. Are you aware of an aircraft in this area?"
The dispatcher was calm, dispassionate, as she was no doubt trained to be. She was also honest. "Yes, ma'am, we had a distress signal from a helicopter in your area and lost communication a few minutes ago."
"I’m guessing the bird went down a mile or two north and west of me. Will a recovery team be on its way soon?"
The pause that followed made Meg look at her phone to see if she still had a connection. "Um...ma'am, I don't know how bad this storm is where you're at, but we got hit with ice like you wouldn't believe two hours before the snow started. Everything here is grounded. Even some of our plows are in trouble."
"But you have to do something. If they're alive, they'll freeze to death. "
"Ma'am, I'm sorry. There's nothing we can do."
"Well, there's something I can do."
"No." A man's voice came on the line, forceful and authoritative. "This is SAR Commander Kenneth Morrison. I am ordering you to stand down. Stay where you are. The last thing we need to do is recover another victim tomorrow, which will be the soonest anybody can get there. If there are survivors, they'll be sheltered from the storm tonight and we will get to them at first light."
Kenneth Morrison. Ken. How long had it been since she heard that voice? Twenty years? Her stomach flipped and a cold chill raced down her spine. He'd led a six-student wilderness survival course the summer after Meg's freshman year of college. He'd singled her out almost from the start. And she'd fallen for his line like the inexperienced, vulnerable nineteen-year-old she was.
She found out later that "Meg Z" had made his Summer Survival Hot Babes list--Ken's brag sheet that he posted for everyone to see. At the time, humiliation and embarrassment had added to the sense of disconnect she'd felt with her peers.
But she wasn't a nineteen-year-old virgin any longer. And she sure as hell wasn't taking orders from a minor despot like Ken Morrison. "You'll be too late," she said, hurrying to her bedroom.
"Oh, come on, Meg. What can you possibly do, except make matters worse?"
"Maybe nothing. But I sure as hell can't sit here twiddling my thumbs, Ken." Too snide? Not possible.
The man groaned. Loudly. "I know how pig-headed you are when it comes to wolves, Meg, but don't throw away your life on another hopeless cause."
That fall when she returned to classes, the realization that she'd let Ken Morrison make a fool out of her prompted Meg to get involved with a new cause: the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park. In part, because she'd always felt an affinity for the wolf -- she must have read Julie of the Wolves a dozen times--but, the other reason for her newfound passion was remembering how Ken had gone on and on about how detrimental wolves would be to his part of south-western Montana.
His part. Like he owned shit.
"That helicopter had no business flying on a night like this," Ken said when Meg failed to respond to his jab. "It belongs to Henry Firestone. I know you'll recognize the name. He's the rancher who led--" Ken's voice crackled, saving her an unneeded explanation.
Yes, she knew Henry Firestone. In the mid-1990s, he'd been the charismatic, vocal, and surprisingly articulate figurehead of a grassroots campaign called Ranchers Before Wolves. She and Firestone had occupied seats on the opposite ends of several panels. They'd spoken to county and state officials from opposite sides of the same room. They'd acknowledged each other in various venues like modern gladiators, but, to her knowledge, they'd never had an actual conversation.
How strange that after all these years Henry Firestone would fall out of the sky into my backyard on Christmas Eve.
Ken's voice came back on the line. "We don't now who was onboard...could have been stolen. Drugs, maybe. Meg? Are you there? Hello?"
Their connection broke completely before Meg could reply.
She tossed the phone on her bed and tugged off her fleece pajamas. "What drug runner in his right mind would steal a helicopter on a night like this, Ken?" she muttered, pulling her thermals out of the drawer. "You truly are an idiot with delusions of grandeur."
And I let you take my virginity. "What kind of idiot does that make me?"
One who learned from her mistakes. One who didn't trust blindly or take orders well. One who couldn't stay put like a good little girl when someone needed her.
Since that initial survival course, Meg had participated in and led wilderness trips on three continents, including the South Pole. Every May she carved a week out of her busy academic calendar to refresh her Wilderness Emergency Medical Technician license.
Meg liked to be prepared. Back when her younger brother and sister recruited Meg to join the Big Sky Mavericks--their childhood game based on the Tom Cruise movie, Top Gun, Meg had been the one to rescue her fallen comrades.
"Lone Wolf. Come in, Lone Wolf. Nitro is down. Repeat. Nitro is down. This is Striker. Over."
Striker, Nitro, and Lone Wolf. The last had been her call sign.
Still was.
For a different reason.
She pushed Ken Morrison out of her mind and began the highly refined art of layering for the cold. She'd logged hundreds of miles of winter tracking over the years making sure her wolf families were safe and staying out of trouble. She had the right gear, the right training. If there were survivors--drug traffickers or innocent victims of a bad choice--aboard Henry Firestone's chopper, she'd find them and bring them back to safety.
If there were casualties, she'd leave a tracking beacon to make the Search and Rescue team's work of finding the wreck a little easier after the storm let up.
In the kitchen, she filled two water bottles and stuffed a fistful of energy bars into her pocket.
"In the morning," she muttered, repeating Ken's words. "What an ass."
Obviously, Ken Morrison had turned into a pencil-pushing desk jockey who couldn't read a weather report. From what she'd seen, this storm was the first of several predicted to hit the area, and the wind chill was going to be a huge factor.
If she didn't find that chopper tonight, there'd be zero survivors. She'd bet her life on it.
She paused on the porch to take a compass reading before she walked into the worse blizzard of her life.

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