Chapter 2

3004 Words
Chapter Two Five Hours Earlier Haley Cooper swallowed a grumble as she hit print on the final report for her boss. The one he’d demanded she have ready by eight this morning, and where was he? Nowhere to be found. This time her grumble was audible. “Boys club.” The night before, she’d stayed at her desk at the Climate Prediction and Research Center – CPARC – until well after dark, compiling the last of the data every scientist needed to begin CPARC’s two-month field project studying tornadoes. This morning, she’d skipped her usual workout and headed straight in so she could hit her deadline. Haley stifled a yawn as she swiveled to catch the papers streaming off the printer. Why did she even bother? She hadn’t even managed to earn a slot as a chase driver, and she knew the roads in rural Oklahoma better than any other scientist at the center. “Face it, Coop,” she muttered under her breath to glass window that looked out over the University of Oklahoma’s Norman campus. “It’s still a boys club. You’d have been better off accepting the job in Kansas City.” She’d been lured away from her job as chief meteorologist at the local NBC Affiliate by millionaire Zack Forte who ran CPARC. He’d promised her she’d be on the vanguard of climate research that would help save lives from deadly tornadoes. Yet the reality was, she was nothing more than a glorified personal assistant. “A coffee girl with a Ph.D.,” Haley murmured as she began collating the pages. So much for moving into the private sector. She had to admit, the research was groundbreaking. And Zack Forte spared no expense when it came to state of the art equipment. But she wanted more. It wasn’t enough to simply be allowed to compile the data and then make suggestions in the lab. She wanted to be in the field. She wanted to personally face down the twisters and glean every last bit of data she could so that no one, no one, would lose their life to the vicious storms again. “Cooper? You in here?” Forte’s voice boomed from across the room. “Right here, Mr. Forte. Just finishing the reports for Kennedy and the others.” Forte waved a hand dismissively as he approached. “I’m sure they’re fine. Pack your bags, Cooper, I need you.” “Wait, what?” She c****d her head, certain she had heard wrong. “Kennedy’s on his way to the emergency room. Looks like he ruptured his Achilles playing tennis at our morning match. He’ll be out of commission for weeks, if not months.” Her pulse quickened. “I–” Forte shook his head. “No time for chit-chat. The other teams have already left for their destinations. Kennedy’s is the last vehicle, and I need you to run his set-up.” She swallowed and tried not to grin as the information sunk in. “Of course, but wasn’t Anderson going to be his driver? Why isn’t–” “Rockwell’s driver got food poisoning. Or is too hungover to drive. I moved Anderson to Rockwell’s vehicle. I have a friend up in Prairie who promised we could find a good local driver.” “Prairie?” Her voice went a little too high. C’mon, Coop. Pull yourself together. She couldn’t seem to find a vocabulary this morning. Her brain was zinging on overload. He couldn’t possibly mean Prairie, Kansas. Surely, there was another small town in tornado alley with the name of Prairie. Just like there were many small towns named Montgomery, or Boonville. Her mouth dried painfully. “Prairie, Kansas?” She asked faintly, hoping against hope she’d misheard, and that this conversation was the result of too much dairy before bed. “Know it?” Zack grinned broadly. No such luck. Definitely not some weird dream she’d be waking from any second. This was cold, hard reality crashing in on her. She nodded slowly, her heart sinking to her toes. Prairie, Kansas. She’d worked hard to forget it over the last ten years, with little luck. A ranch on the outskirts of town she’d left under cover of darkness without a backward glance. A place where she’d left a chunk of her heart she’d never managed to retrieve. Yeah, she knew Prairie, Kansas, all right. “I can’t go there,” she blurted, as her brain started to catch up to her shocked system. Forte narrowed his eyes. “Why the hell not?” Oh crap. Now she’d gone and pissed off her boss’s boss. “I- I’m sure Anderson would jump at the chance to be lead.” “Team three left two hours ago.” An edge of irritation colored Forte’s voice. “And unless I misread you, which I never do, you’ve been chomping at the bit to get to the field. What gives?” He crossed his arms across his barrel chest, waiting for her answer. Only the biggest regret of my existence. Oh, no. She couldn’t even begin to explain. She cleared her throat, searching for an acceptable answer. Cleared her throat again when she found none. Shit. Whatever leftover feelings she had about Axel Hansen paled in comparison to this opportunity. Was she going to let feelings get in the way of the opportunity she’d waited her whole career for? No. Way. She’d go to Prairie, do her job – brilliantly – and come home. She rolled her shoulders back and lifted her chin. “I’ll do it, Mr. Forte.” “Good, good.” He rubbed his hands together and fixed her with a look. “And just to sweeten the honey pot, there’s a field director position opening in the fall when we expand our operation. Do a good job, collect the best data, and I’ll put you at the top of the list.” How she managed not to squeal, she’d never know. She arched a brow, though she was jumping up and down like a little kid on the inside. “Really? Why me?” Forte shot her an appreciative grin, respect glowing in his eyes. “No one knows the data better than you, Coop. And you’re spunky. I like spunky.” She was going to have to be spunky to show up in Prairie after ten years. Although Axel was probably married with children now. A part of her wilted at the thought of seeing him with children. He’d made no secret back then that he wanted to settle down, even though they had been young. But a field director position… A chance to not only set research direction, but maybe even affect policy that would save lives as a result of their research. There was no reason, in this day and age, why people still had to die from violent storms. And maybe when that happened, when she’d truly made a difference, some of the guilt she carried with her would dissipate. She stuck out her hand. “I’m honored, sir. I’ll do my best to not let you down.” He took it and shook vigorously. “Be back here in an hour? I need to have my tech team brief you on the new version of T-REX. We’ve made some improvements over last year’s model.” Two hours later, Haley pulled onto I-35 heading north. James Bond had nothing on the vehicle that hummed underneath her. True to his m.o., Forte had spared no expense on the Tornado Research and Information Exchange Vehicles, which the crew had nicknamed T-REX. The dashboard even had a bobblehead of a tiny Tyrannosaurus Rex. Jam packed with computer screens, Doppler, the latest 3-D imaging technology, and a large drone that took up a good chunk of the rear, the inside of the vehicle felt like a cross between a race car and a traveling laboratory. Haley punched the accelerator, and the engine responded with a purr and zipped ahead. A giddy little sigh escaped as she tightened her grip on the steering wheel. Anticipation thrummed in her veins, and she grinned as she switched lanes, foot itching to press the pedal to the floor and fly down the road. This year, all the vehicles had been mounted on a Jaguar all-wheel drive chassis, giving the T-REX extra oomph in the event the drivers needed to go off-road for twister avoidance. The hum of the vehicle vibrated through her bones. Oh yeah. This was going to be fun. Nothing gave her a thrill like driving a fast car. Except maybe facing down a tornado. But that happened so rarely. She’d joined CPARC so she could get up close and personal with the deadly winds. Learn everything she could, so that others would never have to experience the ravages of a killer storm. Two months of field work. Two months to prove herself and make her mark. “Your research is going to be shared with the best minds in atmospheric and climate research,” she sharply reminded herself, even as the shadow of Axel’s touch wormed its way under her skin. “Remember that, Coop. You’re here to save lives.” But thoughts of Axel were harder to chase away than a modest scolding. What would he look like now? Ten years after she’d snuck out of his bunkhouse under cover of darkness? Would he even remember her? Worse, would he hate her? She deserved it. She’d gone so far as to get a new cell phone when she cut ties with him. Guilt swelled through her, filling the car, making it hard to breathe. Walking away had been the best option for both of them. Axel needed a homebody. Someone who would settle down with him on the ranch, be a good wife and dutiful daughter-in-law. Someone who would give him all the children he said he wanted. Guilt twisted into a hard knot of longing. She wasn’t that person. Never had been. Never would be. She’d always been driven by an invisible force to be the best. Shoot for the top, or don’t shoot at all. Settling down in a town that was barely even on Google Maps was never part of her plan. So she’d ripped her heart out and left. Haley could live with a broken heart. Hell, she wasn’t even sure she had much of a heart anyway. What she could never live without was the safety net of self-sufficiency. Bad things happened when you relied on other people to take care of you. And now it was her job to make sure bad things didn’t happen to others. Her life’s work, really. Making sure no one knew the heartache she’d known. But still… The words What If floated into her mind. Giving herself a shake, she blew out a breath and, out of habit, reached for the radio. But her fingers brushed the GPS. Right. You couldn’t have a radio in a vehicle like this. Three hours of her mind going in circles. Yippee. Did she start singing Brad Paisley tunes? Or recite the elements, first alphabetically then by atomic number? “Actinium, Aluminum, Americium, Antimony, Argon…” Haley paused. How many nights had she recited the periodic table through clenched teeth and tears in an effort to forget him? “Arsenic, Astatine, Barium…” She’d recite the whole table forward and backward if it helped keep her focused on her job and not the sick feeling of seeing little Axels running through Prairie. On the outskirts of Prairie, Haley pulled over to a turnout on the shoulder and slowed to a stop. With every mile she’d driven, the molten knot of anxiety in the pit of her stomach had grown until she’d had to turn on the AC. Even now, her pulse pounded through her temples and she swore she could hear her heart pounding in the silence. An empty semi, likely on its way to load up cattle, rattled by. A memory exploded to life. Sunset on this same road… in Axel’s truck. Windows down, Kaycee Starr blaring on the radio. The scent of wet dirt and heavy air invading the truck as they sang along at the top of their lungs, six-pack at her feet. She pressed her fingers into her tightly closed eyes. As if that would somehow stop the pictures replaying like an old movie. God, what had she been thinking? The loss of him knifed through her. “Time to put on your big girl panties, Coop.” She drew in a ragged breath and let it out slowly, just like Mama June had taught her years ago when panic seemed on the verge of overwhelming her. She breathed in again, focusing on the memory of the only foster parent she’d connected with in her disjointed, chaotic childhood. Mama June, with her big pillowy bosom and loving arms, who never fell for all of the typical foster-kid tests and manipulations. Who taught her how to stand up for herself, and most importantly, land on her own feet. “Ain’t no one but me got your back, Sunshine. This system ain’t set up to help you. And when I’m not around, what you gonna do?” That day had come entirely too soon. But she’d landed on her feet. Like she always did. Just like Mama June taught her. And she’d do it again. She’d hold her head high, and if people in Prairie talked behind her back, so be it. Haley had a job to do. Lives to save. That’s what mattered, not a long-dead relationship with someone who was probably married now anyway. Right? “Keep telling yourself that, Coop.” Taking a last steadying breath, she reached for the folder lying in the passenger seat. She’d avoided opening it as long as possible, dreading what she’d find there and instead relying on her memory to bring her to Prairie. Ten years wasn’t enough time to blot the memory of driving back and forth from Norman every other weekend for three and a half years. Hopefully, Forte had asked his assistant to book her into some kind of long-term rental, or maybe a bed and breakfast. Something she could call home temporarily. Her stomach clenched as she contemplated the folder between her hands. “Right. Big girl panties.” Haley flipped open the folder and let her eyes focus on the name and address at the top of the page. Hansen Stables Contact: Eddie Hansen Phone: 316-465-2714 Address: 1120 N. Five Mile Road, Prairie, KS 66861 A flash of heat rushed through her. Then her hands went cold as she stared at the address until the letters swam. Breathe, Coop. Don’t forget to breathe. Her thoughts turned to Cissy Castro as regret replaced panic. Another bridge burned in the name of survival. She and Cissy had been so close. Well, as close as she ever let anyone get. And now, more than ever, she could use an ally. Maybe, if she was lucky, she might be able to apologize. Explain herself. To both Cissy and Axel. They at least deserved that. In the meantime, she’d have to – what was it Axel always said? Cowboy up. Time to cowboy up. For the second time that day, she wished like anything there was a radio in her rolling science project. Nothing boosted confidence like loud music. Hopefully Prairie’s lone cop – what was his name? Kincaid? Yeah. He must be around sixty now if he was still around. Hopefully he was off chasing a stray cow. She really didn’t feel like observing the speed limit at the moment. Giving one last check over her shoulder, she jammed on the gas and shot into the road, grinning just a bit as her spirits lifted with the speed. In less than ten minutes, she was at the steel arch that said Hansen Stables in block letters with a crest in the center. And more for old times sake than for testing out how the T-REX handled on a dirt road, she turned the wheel hard and gunned the accelerator, flying up the drive. Too soon, she skidded to a stop by the line of trucks parked behind the farmhouse. No turning back now. She opened the door and stepped out. A wave of emotion surged through her, catching her off-guard. The tree next to the house was taller and broader, but the porch and paint were the same. The corrals had new fencing, but the barn was the same… and the smell. She inhaled. That scent of horse and hay and fresh country air zinged through her and settled deep in her bones, nearly knocking her off her feet. It wasn’t supposed to smell like… home. Oh, no. This wouldn’t do. She had to get a grip, and fast. Put on her mask of impersonal professionalism. She was a scientist for pity’s sake. Lip gloss. The perfect armor. Spinning, she leaned into the car and reached across the seat for her purse, digging through the contents until she found her one girly luxury – shimmery tinted lip gloss. A holdover from her days at Mama June’s. Among other things, Mama June had taught her the art of confidence boosting with lip tint. It still worked. She shook the tube then removed the wand, swiping it across her lips and risking a glance in the rear view. She was starting to get crinkles at the corners of her eyes, but she didn’t have the time or interest to contemplate herself in the mirror. Lip gloss would have to do. Footsteps crunched up the gravel drive and stopped a short distance away. Grabbing the folder in case there was a problem, she backed out of the car and turned, standing as tall as she could pull her five-foot-six frame. Everything stopped. Then moved ahead at warp speed. OhLordyLordyLordyLordy The man in front of her was no longer the soft cheeked, buff young man she’d abandoned. Rather, an older, hardened version stood in front of her. All planes and valleys and miles of muscle. Same ginger hair, but now a scruffy shadow covered his jaw. The kind of scruff she’d love to pass her hands over. Axel’s eyes were obscured by aviators that suited his older, leaner self. And while her heart leapt from its cage, she didn’t miss the way his mouth opened then flattened, or the way his temple throbbed when he clamped his jaw. Damn. Her body quivered in recognition. Until he mouthed the words Holy s**t. “What in the hell are you doing here?” Axel spat, anger punctuating every word. Haley swallowed and smiled brightly. In a million years, she’d never imagined a reunion with Axel going like this. Her heart pounded deafeningly, blotting out the songbirds in the nearby trees. All the words and platitudes she’d practiced on the drive up from Norman fell away. Because the truth was, even after ten years, Axel Hansen still managed to take her breath away. And what was she supposed to do with that?
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