The Paternity Proposition

By: Merline Lovelace



The mechanic’s muttered exclamation brought Julie Bartlett’s head up. She was hot, sweaty, splattered with engine oil, and in no mood for another glitch. The PA-36 Pawnee they were working on was almost twice her age and had seen some hard years before being purchased third- or fourthhand by her new partners. No way she was going to take the plane up again until she and Agro-Air’s chief mechanic had wrestled new rings onto the cylinder heads.

Agro-Air’s chief and only mechanic. Tobacco-chawing Chuck Whitestone and Julie’s other partner, Dusty Jones, had been in the agricultural aviation business for a combined eighty-two years. They’d scraped by during the lean times, when plummeting prices and widespread foreclosures forced so many Oklahoma farmers off their land. With U.S. crop production now on an upsurge, they should have turned the corner and be showing a tidy profit.

Should being the operative word. Dusty Jones could fly circles around any pilot, young, old or anywhere in between. Julie could attest to that. He’d swooped in to dust her parents’ wheat fields, taken their eager nine-year-old up for her very first flight and had her working the stick their second time in the air. Because of Dusty, Julie qualified for a pilot’s license before she could legally drive a car. And paid her way through Oklahoma State University with a variety of flying jobs after her parents died. And got hired by a small regional airline right out of college.

Her plan at the time was to build up her cockpit hours and move into bigger passenger aircraft. Ballooning fuel prices had axed that noble goal. With commercial airlines shutting down routes and laying off personnel, she’d switched from hauling passengers to hauling freight. In the past four years, she’d flown in and out of so many remote locations in North, Central and South America that she couldn’t remember a tenth of the places where she’d overnighted. She would probably still be hopping from country to country if Dusty hadn’t tracked her down a couple of months ago and called to suggest she partner up with him and Chuck Whitestone.

He and Chuck were both on the down slope to seventy, he’d reminded her. They wanted to retire soon. If Julie stuck with Agro-Air for a few years, she could buy them out lock, stock and barrel. All they needed was a small infusion of cash to stay afloat until they rode the upsurge in crop production to a nice, fat retirement.

As it turned out, Dusty’s definition of “small infusion” differed from Julie’s by several decimal points. Still, she couldn’t let him and Chuck go under. So she’d quit her job and sunk her entire savings into Agro-Air. But even someone with all her hours in the cockpit didn’t just jump into aerial agriculture feet first. Zipping under power lines and skimming tree tops required a completely different set of flying skills. Also damned near the equivalent of a double PhD in biology and chemistry. Luckily, Julie had taken many of the necessary science courses at OSU. Still, Dusty had insisted she do all the grunt work these past two months—driving trucks, mixing pesticides, maintaining the plane. She’d learned every aspect of the business from the ground up, literally and figuratively.

During her hot, grimy apprenticeship, Julie had also discovered that one of her new partners hit the casinos almost as often as he climbed into the cockpit. The cash she’d invested in Agro-Air should have gone for new equipment. Instead, Dusty had diverted it to pay his most pressing debts.

So here she was, trying to get this forty-five year old tail-dragger back in the air. Consequently, she did not want to hear Chuck had found another problem with the Pawnee’s engine. Mentally crossing all of her fingers and toes, she popped her head up over the engine stand.

“Uh-oh what?”

The mechanic shifted his plug of Red Man from one cheek to the other and spit out a black stream before nodding to something over her left shoulder. “We got company.”

Twisting, Julie peered at the heat waves shimmering above the dirt road that led to Agro-Air’s corrugated tin hangar/operations center/business office. A plume of red Oklahoma dust rose above the iridescent waves. Generating the plume, she saw, was a low-slung Jaguar XFR.


Her stomach did a swift free fall. She could think of only one reason why a $70,000-plus sports car would bump down a dirt road to a mowed-grass airstrip stuck smack in the middle of the Oklahoma Panhandle. The same reason, apparently, had occurred to Chuck. Emitting another black stream, the mechanic shook his head.

“Dusty’s gone and done it again.”

Jaw tight, Julie pulled a rag from the pocket of her coveralls and swiped at her grease-streaked face. The brutal July heat had prompted her to stuff her unruly auburn mane under an Oklahoma Redhawks baseball cap. As a result, she was swimming in sweat and in no mood to threaten, cajole, bargain with or otherwise attempt to fend off another of Agro-Air’s creditors.


When the silvery Jag rolled to a stop some yards away, the man who emerged didn’t look like the other collectors who’d harassed them about late payments. Julie slid her aviator-style sunglasses to the tip of her sweaty nose. With a pilot’s quick grasp of the essentials, she catalogued sun-streaked tawny hair and linebacker shoulders encased in a crisp white shirt with the sleeves rolled up on muscular forearms. A silver belt buckle glinted in the July sun above a pair of pleated black slacks that only men with flat bellies and lean hips could carry off.

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