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Books by
Paige Lee Elliston


FRONT PAGE LOVE: Montana Skies Series

CHANGES OF HEART: Montana Skies Series


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CHANGES OF HEART: Montana Skies Series
Paige Lee Elliston
Revell
Fiction
ISBN: 0800759397

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1

Maggie tugged the heavy sheepskin coat around her body as she hustled from her house to the barn. There wasn't much wind, but what breeze did exist had cruel, arctic arrogance that numbed her face and made her gloveless fingers tingle. Her western boots made the snow squeak as she walked on it, and the cold penetrated her jeans.

In spite of the temperature and the shiver that had already started her teeth clattering against one another, Maggie stopped ten or so yards from the barn and took in a deep breath. The air was achingly cold in her throat, in her lungs, but it was so pristine and so unsullied by civilization and its contaminants that it made her think of the air eight, ten, and more miles above the earth, where Rich flew --- the foothills of outer space, as he called it.

She took another breath and looked to the sky. Stars were said to be much bigger in Montana than anywhere else --- they gleamed and shimmered with a pure white radiance that was almost painful to the eye --- and they seemed close enough for her to reach up and touch them.

"Maggie! Come on --- we need you!"

The front sliding doors of the big barn were open a foot or so, and through the gap Maggie saw Rich, her husband of six years. He stood at the support beam that had the intercom attached to it, his thumb pressing against the button that created a raucous buzz in the house. Next to him stood a standard fifty-five-gallon polyethylene barrel painted a sparkling and flawless white. On it were emblazoned the letters NBRA in eye-searing Day-Glo red. Under the letters, in a smaller font, was the line "National Barrel Racing Association."

Maggie watched Rich for a moment, a grin breaking across her face. He still hadn't figured out how to use the intercom properly, apparently not realizing that every time he pressed the button, the buzz sawed away any words he may have been speaking, and all that could be heard in the house was incoherent, excited gibberish.

He flies forty-seven million dollar test aircraft, and he can't figure out a basic Radio Shack communications hookup, she thought. Her grin became a full smile. The cockpit of the X-417 flashed in her mind; it had more dials and gauges and flip switches and buttons than a nuclear power plant. Rich knew precisely what each one was for, and his fingers found them as unerringly as a skilled surgeon finds a bleeding artery. But a simple intercom . . .

She watched Rich for a bit longer. His hair, blond as a fresh bale of prime straw, was disheveled, as if he'd been running his hands through it. He wasn't tall for a man --- standing five foot nine --- but he gave the impression of height because of his lean, whipcord-tough body and his almost military posture. Her husband looked, Maggie believed, like a recruiting poster for the Boy Scouts of America.

Maggie pushed through the door. "What's up?"

Rich spoke into the microphone of the unit. "Hurry! She's --- " Then he realized that his wife was standing behind him and spun to face her. "She's pacing around the stall a lot, and she seems nervous or scared or something. I offered her a carrot, and she hardly sniffed it. I don't like this. Her eyes aren't right. Suppose . . ."

"Of course she's nervous and excited, Richie. It's her first foal. All this is brand new to her." She put her hand lightly on his arm. "This is all natural stuff, honey. I appreciate all your concern, and I know you love Dusty, but your hovering over her is probably making her more nervous than she needs to be. Besides, God did a great job when he arranged how horses are born; he really doesn't need you supervising."

Their eyes met. "She . . . she wants me there, Maggie. She really does."

It was a little boy's remark, and it made the back of Maggie's throat suddenly sore with the love it expressed. She could feel tears beginning in her eyes. She stepped forward and hugged her husband. "Of course she does," she said, her voice husky. "Let's go take a look."

The barn wasn't quite three years old, but it had already taken on the scents of a well-maintained equine structure. The smell of the creosoted beams --- for the first year, strong and acrid with the taint of kerosene --- was now barely noticeable, and what remained was a rich, full odor that spoke of the strength and permanence of the wood. Maggie took a deep breath and took in the scent of oiled leather, a unique aroma, and to horse people such as herself, as delicate and sensual as the most costly French perfume. Adding to the distinctive scent of the barn was the fresh, springlike smell of healthy horse hides, and the crimped oats and molasses, timothy hay, and new straw.

The smile returned to Maggie's face as she followed Rich down the center aisle. A dozen and more curious horses watched the two people pass from individual box stalls, and many of the animals nickered for a treat or a scratch behind the ears. The sheer joy of the moment --- her loving and beloved husband's concern for first-time mother Dusty, the wonders of the Montana prairie, the barn and the house --- brought a frequently used prayer to Maggie's mind: My cup runneth over, Lord. Thank you for
all this.


The birthing stall was at the end of the barn, separated from the main section and the other horses. Unlike most of the stalls, this one had no window and was slightly smaller than the others. Maggie had explained to Rich that many pregnant mares pace as their time comes closer, and too much room could allow them to move too quickly, tangle their hooves because of the unbalanced foals they carry, and fall, hurting themselves and their babies.

Two heat lamps perched in the corners of the birthing stall cast amber light on the bay quarter horse mare that stood facing the stall gate. Maggie stepped around her husband. "You know, Richie," she said with a laugh, "if you call me out here again on a false alarm, our Christmas Eve dinner is going to turn to ash, and we'll be late for . . ."

Maggie stepped closer to the stall and looked into eyes that were wide and unfocused, the usual glinting chestnut now flat and dull. "Oh, Dusty," she exclaimed, fumbling with the latch on the stall. She swung the gate open and rushed to the horse, her right hand feeling for the pulse point at the mare's throat. Dusty's skin was much warmer than it should have been, and a slick patina of sweat coated her chest and neck. Her pulse was rapid but erratic, throbbing insanely fast, stopping for a moment, and then racing again. A hissing, spattering sound came from the rear and under the mare, and her body began to tremble. A metallic, foul smell reached Maggie, and she crouched, peering under the horse. It wasn't urine Dusty was voiding --- it was blood, great spurts of scarlet liquid that issued from her birth canal, saturating the white gauze that wrapped her tail and spraying against the boards of the back of the enclosure.

"Richie, call Dr. Pulver now! Tell him it's an emergency --- life and death --- and that Dusty is fevered, her pulse is bouncing and very accelerated, and that she's spraying uterine blood. Run, honey --- or we're going to lose Dusty!"

•••

Danny Pulver, DVM, weary after a long day of barn calls, tossed a Milk-Bone to his collie, Sunday. Christmas music --- some carols but primarily longer symphonic pieces from the small Coldwater FM station --- wafted through his small home as he leaned against his kitchen counter and gnawed on a ham sandwich.

His cell phone vibrated in his pocket. "Merry Christmas," he said, "Dan Pulver speaking."

Rich's voice was rushed, his words running together. "Dusty's in trouble. She's bleeding terribly. Maggie said we need you, Dan."

The smile left the vet's face as if it had been suddenly slapped away. "Easy, Rich. Slow down and take me through what happened. Is Dusty standing? How much blood is she losing? From where?"

Rich took a breath, but his voice remained shaky. "It's coming from her birth canal. She's standing and tries to bite at her gut and she's groaning. Her chest is all sweaty. She's --- "

"OK, Rich. Look --- tell Maggie that if the mare wants to go down to let her do so, but try to keep her from writhing until I get there. Maggie's a good hand with horses. She needs you to calm down and be ready to help. Do what she tells you. I'm on my way."

Dr. Pulver grabbed his medical satchel from its place by the door and ran to his GMC 4x4. Sunday ran next to him, but Danny waved the dog back. He put his key in the ignition, hauled on his shoulder belt, and tromped on the gas pedal. The big V-8 engine hurtled the vehicle forward, knobby tires smoking as they clawed for traction.

Danny calculated the time it would take to get to the Lockes' little ranch. During the day it was an easy twenty-minute drive. On Christmas Eve, with traffic essentially nonexistent this far out in the wilds, he could make it in ten. There'd been some light snow earlier in the day, but the road was clear and there wasn't much danger from ice --- the temperature hadn't gone over eight degrees in several days and there'd been almost no snow --- and the moon was full, with good visibility. Danny glanced down at his speedometer --- a bit over sixty miles per hour --- and applied some more pressure to the accelerator.

He'd met Rich and Maggie Locke a little more than a year ago at a church festival when he'd first opened his practice. New clients were hard to come by in the area. Most of the cattlemen and the horse people seemed satisfied with the veterinarians from the established vet hospital in Coldwater, the nearest town. The folks who ran barrels or roped from their mounts in competition or showed their animals at halter or in pleasure classes were very particular about who took care of their horses' health. Danny's specialty was equine medicine, but he'd been seeing mostly dogs, cats, birds, and the occasional snake before Maggie gave him her business.

She was a stunner. When she'd approached him at the festival and introduced herself, his eyes had swept to her left hand, and he'd swallowed a lump of disappointment when he'd seen her wedding band. She was perhaps five foot five, and her brown eyes had a warmth to them that made it impossible not to smile when speaking with her. Her chestnut hair reached to her shoulders and was all the more attractive because she didn't fuss with it. In fact, Danny figured she probably hadn't seen the inside of a beauty salon in years; hers was a natural beauty that didn't need curling irons or hairspray or makeup to manifest itself.

Danny clicked on the high beams of the already-powerful halogen headlamps, and the sweep of light deepened ahead of him. A pair of strangely green eyes, reflecting light like polished jewels, appeared to the right, perhaps fifty yards ahead. Almost immediately another pair appeared --- and then another. Danny's foot tapped the brake pedal as the group of deer --- nine or ten of them, at least --- moved onto the narrow shoulder of the road and stood gawking at him, obviously mesmerized by the brilliant lights bearing down on them.

Danny jammed the steering wheel to the left, at the same time stomping the antilock brake pedal. The knobby, fatly treaded tires screamed in protest as the rear end of the GMC broke traction and slid to the right, the howl of the rubber and the shrill scream of the decelerating engine a cacophony in the cab of the truck. Danny eased the steering wheel into the skid, felt the magic point where he was again in control, and down-shifted into third gear. Again, the vehicle threatened to slide, but this time to the left, where Danny wanted it. He touched the accelerator with his toe, feeding a bit more power to the engine and using the huge V-8 to neutralize the skid, and rocketed past the cluster of deer that gaped at the truck as it blasted past them, less than a yard away from the lead buck's nose. Safe again in his own lane, the veterinarian wiped sweat from his forehead with the back of a hand and stepped again on the accelerator.

•••

Dusty was down on her side, her bay coat slick with sweat, when Danny dashed into the barn, his bag of equipment at his side. He shoved past Rich and nodded to him without speaking, seeing the depth of the fear in the man's eyes. Maggie, crouched at the mare's rear, her hands bloody and her face streaked with tears that glittered in the light, was yet more frightened than her husband. "Danny," she rasped. "She . . ."

Danny dropped his bag, worked the latch, and slid his hands into a pair of latex gloves. "Let me in there, Maggie," he said, already lowering himself in front of the woman. He concentrated as his trained fingers palpated the depths of the groaning mare's reproductive organs. A barely felt sensation --- that of a tiny fingertip tapping on the back of his right hand --- froze his movements. He waited a full ten seconds, focusing on the rhythmic pulsing, and then, sure that what he was feeling was blood escaping a torn umbilical cord, eased his hands into a better position. Dusty squealed as he did so, and Danny cringed, but he had no other course. Causing this fine mare some pain now could save her life and that of her foal. He followed the cord with his fingers, its sleek, warm length amazing him as it always did. The words of his Cornell University professor of anatomy's words played in his mind: "The umbilical cord isn't merely a messenger of life --- it is life itself. It's the tie between all of those who have come before and all of those who are to be."

The vet's finger found the leak, lost it for a second, found it again, and followed the sinuous path of the cord to the foal's stomach. The problem quickly became clear: the rupture was the result of a twist around the foal's forefoot --- the umbilical cord had stretched and then had partially split, probably because of movements of the mare, the foal, or both.

Danny's fingers told him the foal was alive, and his face broke into a relieved grin as he looked over his shoulder at Maggie and Rich. "We're not going to lose Mama tonight," he said. "And we're going to have a live birth here before too long."

For the briefest part of a moment, the eyes of the young couple brought to Danny's mind the image of the deer eyes he'd seen not twenty minutes ago, but then the fear disappeared and the faces of the man and woman glowed with joy and relief.

Contractions started again almost immediately. Dusty's hindquarters tensed, her muscles as rigid as bands of steel --- and then Danny held a foal in his arms. Again, his hands moved quickly and surely, pulling a messy knot of greenish mucus from the baby's nostrils, wiping afterbirth from the eyes, feeling for spinal structure, listening to the first breath the animal drew. He eased his little finger into the foal's mouth, and when the intrusion was greeted, after a heartbeat, with a strong suckling instinct, Danny knew he was crying --- just as he did each time he attended a successful birth.

And he wasn't alone. Tears of happiness and gratitude --- and awe at the miracle of birth --- streamed down the faces of Rich and Maggie Locke as well.

Even with the by-products of birth adhering to the foal's coat, the color was apparent. He was a red chestnut, and there was a jagged snippet of white on his muzzle.

•••

The heady, delightfully rich aroma of strong, freshly brewed coffee filled Maggie's kitchen the way sunshine fills a perfect July day. Maggie's Christmas roast, now like a small cinder block that'd spent a day in a blast furnace, was wrapped in newspaper on the counter, a gift for Danny's collie, Sunday. Maggie, Rich, and Danny's faces were flushed from the hours they'd spent in the cold, as well as from the giddy excitement each of them felt.

"What are you going to name him?" Danny asked, sipping coffee.

"Well," Maggie said, "his name with the Quarter Horse Registry will be ‘Lancer's Quick Prince,' because the stud was from the Lancer line and Dusty's registered name is ‘Far Away Princess.' We'd already decided on that --- if he was a male."

Rich snorted. "Is there anything more pretentious than the registered names you horse people come up with?" He laughed, grinning at Maggie. "Can you imagine standing in the paddock in the morning, calling, ‘Here, Lancer's Quick Prince?'"

"Hush, you. If you're so clever, why don't you name him?"

Rich didn't hesitate. "Dancer."

"Dancer?" Maggie and Danny asked in unison.

"You betcha. Look: first of all, if it wasn't for Danny, we wouldn't have the foal, correct? So, we incorporate the first part of Danny's name. And then --- did you see how the cute little guy stood on those stick legs?"

"I'll admit I'm cute, but there's nothing wrong with my legs," Danny said.

"I meant the foal, you narcissist."

"It still applies, narcissist or not."

Maggie laughed. How has a guy like this --- good looking, bright, funny, and a genuinely compassionate veterinarian --- remained unmarried?

"Come on!" Rich said. "I'm serious --- when that baby was poking around for Dusty's nipple, did you see how his feet moved? So gracefully, as if he'd practiced it? Dancer is a perfect name for him."

A moment passed. "You know," Danny said, "Rich has a real good point about the way the foal moved."

"Dancer it is," Maggie said, rising from her chair and moving to her husband to embrace him. "Great name," she said. "He'll be the best barrel-racing horse ever." She met Danny's eyes. "Thank you," she said quietly.

"Yeah," Rich added. "Thanks, Danny."

•••

Maggie awakened shortly before 5:00 the next morning. Her husband was already gone; his side of their bed was cold under her hand. She'd known he wouldn't be there when she woke up --- it was part of a ritual they'd established whenever Rich was flying a new, untested aircraft.

After they'd checked Dusty and Dancer one final time the night before and come back to the house, Rich had put the jeans and shirt he'd put on the next morning on one of the kitchen chairs. Neither of them spoke of what he was doing --- there'd been tears and stilted conversations and a palpable tension the first few times Rich had piloted untried planes. It was terribly hard on both of them --- particularly Maggie. They'd had to find a solution. Fortunately, Maggie was a sound sleeper --- once she was out for the night, an earthquake couldn't wake her. Rich slept like a feral cat, leaving sleep quickly, ready to do what needed to be done, immediately in full command of all his senses. So they decided that on the days he would be flying untried planes, he would leave very early in the morning, before Maggie woke up.

A small smile began to form on Maggie's face as she swung her feet out from under the covers. The first time Rich had snuck out of their bed to pilot a jet fighter that was more like a rocket than an airplane, he'd left a note on the kitchen table for her in his neat, almost surgically precise handwriting.

Dear Maggie:

It's like driving a bus, honey. No sweat. What's for lunch?

I love you,

Rich
Maggie knew there'd be another note, worded exactly the same way, on the table this morning. She had an even dozen of them neatly folded in her jewelry box. On each, a random letter or even a full word was slightly smeared from where her tears had fallen on it. Rich didn't know that, and she never planned to tell him about how such mornings almost tore the heart out of her --- how she begged the Lord to bring him back to her safely this time, just as he had in the past.

She saw the note on the table but didn't immediately go to pick it up. The kitchen, with its brightly polished maple table and gleaming pots and pans hung over the stove, shimmered in her vision. She shut her eyes, forcing away the tears. The lights on the Christmas tree --- which Rich had turned on before he left --- seemed to mock her with the peace and joy they represented. The wrapped gifts they'd exchange later were piled neatly at the base of the tree, but the glossy sheen of the silver and red gift wrap did nothing to counter the strange feeling of dread she was experiencing.

Christmas morning and they've got to do this --- they've got to fly that thing. Rich had explained how the new fuel mixture --- some top-secret stuff --- had a very short life and needed to be used almost immediately or its chemical composition would change, and how the plane itself had to be secured in a hangar with a half dozen armed special forces personnel guarding it at all times, and how the atmospheric conditions were perfect . . . and so forth.

What is it with these men? she thought. They're like little boys competing to see whose bike is fastest or who can climb the highest tree. Always faster --- always higher. They laughed about what they did --- they goaded one another, and then they would stand there in their full-dress uniforms while another one of them was buried. At the wake they'd give their sympathy to the widow and then cluster outside and talk about the top-secret plane Lockheed or Boeing or some such firm was building.

Maggie shook her head angrily, and it was then she noticed that her fists were clenched so tightly that her fingernails had drawn blood from her palms. For a long moment, she gazed at her right hand as if she'd never seen it before, her eyes following the tiny trickles of blood. Then, woodenly, she walked to the sink to wash her hands, her lips moving as she prayed. Please, Lord, bring him back this time.

She turned to the table and picked up the note and was immediately shamed by the flash of anger she'd just experienced. The words on the scrap of paper were exactly the same as they'd been on the others, but at the bottom of this one was a stick-legged sketch of a foal with musical notes floating in the air around it and little lines indicating that the legs were moving . . . dancing.

Just like him, she thought, a grin tugging at the corners of her mouth. The perspective --- the point of view --- of a boy in a fully grown man's body.

She recalled one of their conversations about the new plane and propulsion system he was testing this day.

"It's a real leap in technology, and that's the important thing, Maggie. Our country has millions and millions of dollars and thousands of hours of research and development into the X-417. America needs this plane to keep it safe, to keep it strong. My part in all that is tiny --- I just steer the thing. The scientists and the engineers are the real heroes."

Then he'd added sheepishly, "'Course, the fact that going at twice the speed of sound is absolutely a ton of fun might enter into it too."

Maggie did her best to hold on to that image as she pulled on jeans, a sweater, boots, and her sheepskin coat. As she hurried from the house to the barn through the almost arctic chill in the pristine air, her senses were assaulted by a roaring, high-pitched shriek that seemed too loud and too piercing for even the vastness of the Montana sky to contain. The X-417 looked more like a dart than an airplane, and as she stared upward, the silly-looking stubby wings rocked back and forth in a salute to her. Then the aircraft seemed to stand on its tail for a heartbeat and rocketed straight upward like a bolt fired from a gigantic crossbow. Brilliant bright-blue flames appeared at the tail for the tiniest part of a second, and the scream of the engine threatened to deafen her. Before she could get her hands to her ears, Maggie lost the plane in the face of the morning sun.

Dusty nickered as Maggie approached the birthing stall. Maggie had expected the mare to instinctively put her body between Maggie and the foal, but Dusty greeted her owner like a proud mother, licking the noisily nursing foal and then finding Maggie's eyes with her own.

"You should be proud, Dusty," Maggie said with a laugh. "He's a beautiful baby --- a perfect baby."

Dancer's head popped out from under his mother at the sound of Maggie's voice. He had the typical big-eyed, surprised look of all foals. His coat, after hours of Dusty's licking, gleamed like burnished brass, and the snippet of white midpoint on his muzzle was as pure a white as new snow. He stared at Maggie for a long moment, huffed wetly through his nostrils, and ducked back under his mother to find the nipple he'd left. As he shifted his body, Maggie noticed that the walking-on-stilts, tangled-leg shakiness that a youngster not a full day old would normally exhibit was conspicuously absent. Dancer shifted his hips easily and smoothly, and his forefeet followed with the same grace.

Dusty poked her muzzle toward Maggie, asking for a treat, and Maggie scratched behind the mare's ears. "Of course a new mama needs a carrot," Maggie whispered. "I'm so proud of you, Dusty."

She turned away to the basket of carrots on the floor, selected a large one, and wiped the grit and dirt from it on her jeans. She was turning back to Dusty when a whistling shriek tore the peace to sharp-edged shards. Less than a full second later the entire barn trembled, windows rattling, beams and boards groaning as a massive shock wave assaulted the structure. The explosion was far too loud to be called a mere sound --- it was a palpable and physical cataclysm that slammed into Maggie like an unexpected kick to the stomach. She dropped the carrot and ran frantically to the front of the barn and outside, unaware that she was screaming.

A white contrail pointed from the depths of the sky straight to the ground, where a red-orange fireball spread upward in a ferociously burning, roiling, deadly fist.

Excerpted from CHANGES OF HEART: Montana Skies Series Copyright 2005 by Paige Lee Elliston. Reprinted with permission by Revel. All rights reserved.

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