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Big Sky Mavericks

Montana Maverick

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 Montana mountain cabin to write and think. When Henry Firestone–an old adversary 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.

MONTANA MAVERICK

by Debra Salonen
© 2015

CHAPTER ONE

“It was a dark and stormy night.”

The seven 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 and laughed.

“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, and then 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 Zabrinskis 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 on 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 founded 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.

If the children he’d been sent to protect were going to survive, they needed to run.

Now.

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.

Avalanche?

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 her 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 know 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 certification.

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.

~~


Down.

Alive.

The two thoughts hit Hank Firestone simultaneously.

I must have blacked out.

He ripped off his headset, which had muffled the outside noise. Sounds of a great beast dying. Betsy, his beautiful R22 helicopter. He’d bought her
used–and mostly gutted–ten years ago and slowly, lovingly, made her his own. He pictured parts of her scattered for miles. He’d sensed they didn’t have a
chance of making it over the summit when he heard a loud popping noise overhead. Something snapped and probably flew into the blades.

Mechanical failure is what they’d call it. Stupidity is what they’d be thinking. Who in is his right mind flies into a storm on Christmas Eve with four
kids and a dog?

The kids.

Like that, Hank’s adrenaline shot into overdrive. He clawed at the release of his safety harness so he could shift in the confined, mangled space to look
around.

Emergency lights cast an eerie glow in the cockpit. Thirteen-year-old Jacob Landry, Jr.–JJ as he preferred–sat slumped in the co-pilot seat. A scratch
above his eye. Nothing serious. Hard to tell if there was internal damage, but all the kids were well padded thanks to the oversized winter clothing Hank
had insisted they wear. JJ’s parka had belonged to Laurel, Hank’s late daughter, the kids’ mom.

“JJ,” Hank said, gently shaking the boy who’d turned thirteen a few days after his mom passed away from melanoma. Another stupid mistake on Hank’s part. He
should have lathered on sunscreen when she was a little girl riding her horse across the Montana prairie. Stinking lot of good hindsight did him. She was
gone and he had four kids in his care–for now.

Crashing a helicopter in a storm will add fuel to the bitch’s fire,
he thought.

But the caustic thought passed quickly. Unless he got help, they’d all die and then the custody battle with Mystic and Bravo’s father and paternal
grandmother would die, too.

“JJ, are you okay?”

“Huh? Hank?”

The older kids called him Hank because their mother did. He hadn’t been much of a dad and now he was even less of a grandfather.

“What happened?”

“Something snapped. I couldn’t steer. The snow helped break our fall, but we crashed.”

Jacob tried to turn to look in the back but his harness stopped him. Hank stilled his hands. “Whoa. Calm down. I need you to take a deep breath and tell me
if you hurt inside. Ribs? Spleen? Anything broken?”

Jacob inhaled and let it out, the air crystalizing between them. The warmth from the heater was gone. And the meager emergency light was dimming. “I’m
okay.”

“Thank God.”

Hank grabbed the flashlight near his feet and turned sideways to shine it into the back compartment. The shell of the bird was noticeably caved in on
Annie’s side but all three occupants appeared safe and unhurt.

Sweet little Annie, the quiet one, had her face pressed into her mitten-covered hands, her thin shoulders sobbing. Her half-brother, Bravo, was on the
opposite side of the bird, strapped into a high-back booster seat. The normally boisterous three-and-a-half-year-old had his thumb in his mouth, his eyes
wide and unblinking as he took in everything.

“You okay, Bravo?”

The little boy nodded.

“What about you, baby doll? Are you hurt?”

“My…my foot. Something landed on it.”

His toolbox had come loose, Hank figured. Molded plastic–which could become lethal in this cold.

Hank reached behind the seat, his bad shoulder screaming in pain. His bare fingers stretched until he felt the handle. He didn’t have the right leverage to
pull or push it away and there wasn’t room to maneuver.

“I’ll get it, Hank.” Jacob, skinny as Hank had been at that age, squeezed between the seats, his butt nearly in Hank’s face. It was a tight fit with the
bulk of the boy’s snowmobile bibs.

Hank heard him grunting, followed by the sound of something sliding. “Got it.”

Hank grabbed a hunk of fabric and tugged backwards. “Good job.”

Annie, who was the spitting image of his daughter at eleven, pulled both knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around them to bury her face and cry.

Luckily, their rich, maternal grandmother, who once lived in Montana, had sent all the children snowmobiling boots for Christmas. The bulky black and
yellow waterproof fabric didn’t appear to be torn or compromised. “Your foot’s not broken, is it?”

She shook her head. The Chargers logo on her stocking cap reflected off the light.

He noticed she was still wearing the high-end headphones her paternal grandmother had sent, too.

Bribes, Hank thought bitterly. What little money he’d saved over the years had gone to cover his daughter’s final hospital bill and cremation.

Hank unzipped his outer jacket to reach for his phone. No signal. Big surprise. A full charge, though. That was good. Maybe the search and rescue team
could ping it to locate them in the morning.

From the cargo hold came a familiar whine.

Damn. He’d forgotten about Rook, his nine-year old Alusky–part Malamute, part Siberian Husky, with a drop or two of wolf, the breeder said.

“Take it easy, Rook, I’ll get you out in a minute, buddy.” Smartest animal he’d ever known and his best friend. The dog usually flew in the co-pilot seat
with a special harness. This time, because Hank knew it was going to be a rough flight, he’d put the dog in the heavy duty cage they used to transport
wolves that got too close to Hank’s specialty highland cattle.

“Is your sister okay?” he asked Annie.

Hank had cursed his clumsy fingers and all the hooks and buckles that came with an infant car seat when he frantically tried to install it so they could
beat the storm, but the darn thing was built like a brick shithouse. If anybody could survive a full-on helicopter crash, it should be his littlest
grandbaby.

Annie peeked under the alpaca receiving blanket an old friend of Laurel’s had sent.

“Still sleeping,” Annie whispered.

Probably the dose of fever reducer he’d given the fussy, squalling, feverish infant after talking to some stranger on his Ham radio.

His whole HR community had rallied to help, but since most of his friends were on the other side of the world, what could they do? When Mystic’s fever
spiked to 104.5-degrees, Hank made the decision to go for help. He’d be the one who had to live with the consequences of that decision.

And now he was going to have to break the first rule of winter survival: stay with your vehicle.

The moment he opened the cockpit door the forty-knot wind would blow a foot of snow into their steadily chilling shelter. But the alternative wasn’t much
better. At this altitude, with the temperature dropping, if he did nothing, they’d freeze to death.

Not the worst way to go, a voice in his head said. He’d seen worse.

He cursed silently as he shined the flashlight around, taking stock of the damage. Each kid had a backpack filled with extra clothes and snacks and water
bottles he’d figured they would need at the hospital. There were plenty of blankets and emergency provisions in the far back. If he let Rook out, Hank
might be able to make a small fire in the tail — with enough ventilation to keep them from dying of asphyxiation. Possibly, just possibly, they could last
the night–or until rescue came.

Like that was going to happen any time soon.

There wasn’t a crew on the ground within fifty miles that could make it to this elevation in time to help them.

The baby made a little mewling sound that sent a shard of fear straight to his belly. He’d do what he could. Some of them might survive. Mystic wouldn’t.

Hank spent the next forty minutes doing triage. Luckily, the bumps and bruises the children had sustained weren’t major. Mostly, his passengers needed hugs
and reassurance that they’d be rescued.

Hank lied through his teeth.

“We’re safe. We landed, not crashed,” he told them. A bogus distinction, given he had no idea what his rotors looked like and he’d pretty much landed
without rudder control.

He honestly didn’t know how they managed to land in one piece. A guardian angel, maybe? Had Laurel reached out from heaven to protect her babies? What
other explanation was there?

He closed his eyes and said a silent prayer. “I’m gonna need a little more help here, Gracie.”

Laurel Grace Firestone. The best thing that ever happened to him. Becoming a father at eighteen may not have sounded providential to most people, but his
baby girl stole his heart with her first cry. She gave him purpose and focus. He’d treasured each of her thirty-one years and when she died four months
earlier, her death left huge gaping holes in their hearts–and a mountain of unresolved custodial issues that made Hank feel like the captain of the
Titanic. The iceberg he dodged yesterday might capsize them tomorrow.

Of course, the upcoming custody war with Bravo and Mystic’s paternal grandmother was a moot point at the moment. First, they had to survive before they
could argue over which children were going to live with whom.

Hank would fight with all his might to keep the children together. Unfortunately, he knew there would be armchair quarterbacks who would question his
decision to fly on a night like this.

He’d made a judgment call–one he hoped didn’t kill them.

~~


JJ curled in a ball in the co-pilot seat, listening to the squeaks and moans and popping sounds as the helicopter settled into its death.

A lot noisier than Mom.

Her last sounds–the one time he snuck in to see her at the end–were low, ugly gasps that came from deep in her chest, like a trapped animal trying to
crawl out. He would have done anything to make it stop, but everyone–the doctors, Grandpa, even, God–had given up trying to help her.

A few hours later she died.

Cancer.

Mom’s death wasn’t his fault, but this was.

He made a fist and pressed it to his gut to keep from throwing up.

He’d nearly killed them all.

Maybe I did.

They’d crash landed in the middle of nowhere in a freaking blizzard. They’d probably freeze to death before help arrived.

He leaned sideways to look into the back seat.

Bravo was strapped in his seat, crying. His nose a snotty mess, like usual. The kid cried more often than Annie, who was a girl.

JJ got to his knees so he could check on Mystic. He’d die if Mystic was dead. His mother gave her life for that baby. Mom had refused any sort of cancer
treatment for fear it would hurt her baby. Mystic River Landry. Mom had the name picked out before the doctor confirmed the baby was a girl.

If Mystic died so soon after Mom, JJ would be glad to freeze to death. At least he wouldn’t have to live with that guilt, too.

“You okay, buddy?” Hank asked in the pilot’s seat beside him. Hank. To the little ones he was Grandpa, but JJ used his given name because that’s how Mom
always addressed her father.

JJ swallowed hard to keep from crying. He had to man up.

Be brave, my love. I’m counting on you to keep it together for the sake of the little ones,
Mom said before she got bad.

“Yeah. I’m okay. But, your bird…” Hank always called the helicopter a bird. The thing even had a name, but JJ couldn’t remember it. “I…I’m sorry.”

Hank, who appeared to be concentrating hard on assessing their situation, gave JJ a questioning look. “Sorry for wha…? No,” his grandfather said sternly,
his deep voice going hard and serious. “This is not your fault, JJ. Something mechanical gave out. I heard a pop right before the rotor went wonky.

“Could have been from the cold, the snow, structural fatigue, who knows? But whatever the cause, you are not to blame. Are we clear on that?”

JJ wanted to believe him, but JJ had been the one holding the stick when the popping noise happened. Hank had given him the controls so he could reach
behind them to keep Mystic from choking to death. Annie and Bravo had been crying so loudly JJ thought his ears would bleed. He’d held the stick with all
his might and tried to pretend the whole thing was a video game.

But what happened next wasn’t pretend. The helicopter lurched and bucked like a living beast. His hold slipped. The bird tilted sideways–only for a second
until he got it straightened out again–but that’s when the bad sound happened. The helo cried out as if he’d shot it. The moaning and groaning and
vibration seemed to move through his body as they fell.

He’d never been more scared in his entire life. He’d prayed to God, his dead mother and the dead father he barely remembered. He prayed hard. And, it
looked like his prayers were answered.

They were still alive, right?

A gust of wind hit the helicopter–Betsy, he thought, that was the bird’s name–rocking it enough to release a fine white mist of snow inside their
shelter.

He tried to see into the blackness beyond the frosty plastic window, but there was nothing. Just a black snowy void.

His prayers might have saved them, but for how long?






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