EXCERPT: A Little Too Close - Author Devney Perry

09/13/2022

EXCERPT: A Little Too Close

Enjoy this preview to A Little Too Close by Rebecca Yarros. This is a standalone in the Madigan Mountain series. The other books are A Little Too Late by Sarina Bowen and A Little Too Wild by Devney Perry.

Chapter One

Weston

Helicopters were my happy place. They were power, and lift, and drive—all without the constraints of runways. They weren’t confined to roads, and they didn’t require space to accelerate for takeoff. They simply launched into the sky from wherever they happened to be. They were freedom. At least they used to be. The shiny red slice of liberty I was currently signing for felt about as liberating as handcuffs. Because that’s exactly what it was.

It was a three-million-dollar leash.

The office clock in the steel building just off the tarmac in Leadville, Colorado, showed seven a.m., and my stomach churned as I debated my life choices for the millionth time since Reed called. But I signed, and signed, and signed, each signature tying me to the one place I’d spent eleven years avoiding like a prostate exam.

“You know, if I wanted to do dash-eighteen inspections at dawn, I would have stayed in the army,” Theo said from the doorway, clipboard in hand, the brown skin of his forehead crinkling as he raised his brows at me. He’d been my best friend for the better part of a decade, so I knew it wasn’t going to be the last time he looked at me like that.

“At least you’re not in A2CU’s.” Personally, I would have traded my jeans and Henley for my uniform in a second, but Theo had been ready to get out, which was the only reason I’d been able to talk him into coming with me. I handed over another stack of paperwork to the broker, stretching as I stood. We’d sent Maria’s husband and Theo’s family ahead to Penny Ridge yesterday, then driven into Leadville late last night, and my body ached from spending hours behind the wheel. I needed a run to loosen up after two straight days of travel, but this had been the only time the seller had been able to meet us for delivery.

“Everything in order?” the broker asked Theo.

“Serial numbers match up on everything,” Theo said with a nod, handing over the clipboard. “Ramos is still doing her once-over.”

Thankfully, Maria Ramos had been approaching her ETS date and been able to turn in her combat boots with us for this insane little venture. It was almost like the stars had aligned, or fate had smiled, or some other cliché bullshit. Either way, she was the best crew chief we’d had in our unit and the final piece I’d needed.

We left the building and stepped out into the early October air, where Maria was closing one of the compartments on the helicopter.

“How does it look?” I asked.

“Good,” she answered. “It’s well maintained. I mean, there’s every chance you two assholes could still fly it into the ground, but that would be pilot error.” She shrugged with a deceptively sweet smile.

We did the walk-around and I signed the last of the paperwork.

The broker reached out his hand and shook all three of ours in turn. “I wish you guys better luck than the last company that owned her.”

“What happened to the last company?” Theo’s brow furrowed, giving the helicopter a second look.

“Went under.” The broker shrugged. “Everyone thinks they have what it takes to own and manage a heli-skiing operation here, but…well…” Another shrug.

My ribs tightened like a vise.

“Anyway, I’ll go make some copies inside and then you guys are good to go.” The broker headed back into the terminal.

“They went under,” Maria said slowly, lifting her ball cap to tuck a strand of her brown hair back under the brim.

“Guess so.” I shoved my hands into the pockets of my cargo pants. Gone were the multicam flight suits and the rank on my chest I’d worked my ass off for. I was starting over from scratch—well, not entirely since I had Theo and Maria with me, but their support also meant I was responsible for them.

“West.” Theo turned and put his hands on my shoulders, looking me dead in the eye. “Look me in the eye and tell me this isn’t going to fail. I did not move my wife and kids to the whitest town in America—and I am not talking about the snow—for this to fail.”

“We’re not going to fail,” I assured him.

“Right. Now say it like you mean it.”

“We aren’t going to fail.” I cracked a wry smile and stepped back, taking in the clean lines of the Bell 212 and her shiny new paint. Failure wasn’t an option, not here, not with my family’s name on that paperwork.

“It’s not like we’re starting up on our own,” Maria added, zipping her jacket over her coveralls. “Scott signed for our new apartment last night, and he told me that little operation your family owns isn’t quite the mom-and-pop shop you described.” She tilted her head to the side. “I believe the words boutique resort came out of his mouth.”

“My brother Reed is expanding it,” I said by way of explanation. My friends knew everything they needed to for our business to succeed—my family was the owner of Madigan Mountain Resort, a small, family-oriented ski resort in Summit County, Colorado. They knew I’d been asked to open a heli-skiing operation to take Madigan Mountain up a notch. We weren’t competing with Breck or even A-basin or anything, but the expansion Reed was overseeing was going to catapult us in that direction. My friends also knew that I’d walked away from the resort, and every string that came with it, eleven years ago and hadn’t looked back once.

Not until Reed called nine months ago.

“You’re regretting this, aren’t you?” Theo asked, studying my face. “Because Jeanine is closing on a house I’ve never even seen before right now, and if you’re having second thoughts—”

“I just signed for a three-million-dollar aircraft.” I curled the brim of my hat, the only nervous gesture that eleven years in the army hadn’t cleared me of. “There are no second thoughts.”

“Good, because Scott is already unpacking,” Maria said, shooting me a sideways glance.

“We’re not going to fail,” I repeated. “I know these mountains like the back of my hand, and with us”—I looked over at Theo—“taking turns flying and guiding the backcountry tours, we’re going to be just fine.”

It was our love of backcountry skiing that had bonded Theo and I during the months we’d spent TDY in Europe that first year. The guy was just as good as I was, and I was damn good.

The broker came back from the terminal with a large blue folder that had his logo stamped across the front. “Paperwork is all here.”

“Thank you.” I took the folder. It wasn’t every day someone held his life in his hands, but here I was.

“You ever fly out of Leadville before?” the broker asked, two little lines appearing between his eyes.

“Yep,” I answered.

“High-altitude training,” Theo explained.

“Good. Hate to be the last person you ever saw,” the broker joked. “Keys are yours, metaphorically speaking, and the ones to the doors are in the folder. Pleasure working with you.”

“You too.”

We waved goodbye to Maria as she drove my truck from the airport, heading toward Penny Ridge, then Theo and I started the run-up and checks.

“You file the flight plan?” I asked through our headsets.

“You know I did. Smooth like butter,” Theo said as the engines ran up. “And look, a full tank of gas.”

“For three million, he better have filled the tank.”

 “How long is it going to take Ramos to get there?”

“About ninety minutes,” I answered. “It’ll take us about twenty to fly it.”

“You’re driving this time,” Theo commented. “That way if something breaks, it’s on you.”

I scoffed but nodded as we finished the checklist. Then I took the controls, got clearance from the tower, and launched us into the sky. There was nothing quite like the sound of this hum. It was different in every helicopter, but the beats were distinct in this model, which was pretty much a jazzed-up Huey.

The rotors beat the air into submission, and we took off. The air was thin up here—Leadville was the highest airport in the nation—and the gauges showed it.

We dipped off the peak and flew along the range.

“That’s some pretty blue sky you’ve got here,” Theo said, taking in the scenery.

“Colorado blue. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else.” We followed the dips and lines through the valley, which had us following the road for the most part.

“Breckenridge?” Theo asked, looking out over the terrain.

“Frisco,” I answered as we veered east. “Breck’s just up there.”

“I can see the runs from here.”

We flew past Keystone and A-basin, then headed toward Penny Ridge, which sat just beneath the Madigan Mountain Resort. From the air, Penny Ridge looked to be about the same as when I’d left—a few new buildings here and there, but nothing significant. That was the beauty of a small town that stayed small.

And the mountains? Those never changed. Not really. The hunter green of the pines gave way at the tree line to jagged gray peaks that cut into the sky like chipped knife blades. We had a couple of weeks until the snow would stick, and another few after that to build enough of a base to open for the season. Just enough time for Theo to get to know the area as well as I did.

“All of the really good skiing is over that ridge.” I nodded toward the runs that were carved into the mountain, their thin strips of pale green slicing through the trees, accompanied only by the chairlift I’d helped repair too many times to count. “We’ll do an area orientation flight tomorrow if Jeanine doesn’t have you unpacking.”

“She will,” he answered with a smile, his voice softening like it always did when he talked about his wife. Those two were…iconic, enviable. That was the only way to describe their relationship. “But we’ll make time.”

From the air, I could see just how much the expansion was already underway. New runs had been cut in recently purchased land, and construction had begun for the new condo development, or whatever Reed was calling it.

And right there, between the existing resort and Madigan 2.0, was the building Reed had promised, along with an X-marked helipad. Not that I’d ever doubted. If Reed said he was going to do something, then it got done.

It was the shit he didn’t promise that had always been our issue.

“Looks like that’s all for us,” Theo said. “You know, it’s not every family that welcomes you home with a new hangar.” He glanced over meaningfully.

“Don’t go there.” I maneuvered the aircraft carefully, making sure I hadn’t missed any powerline construction in the last decade. “It’s too early.”

“My man, we are already going there.” Theo leaned forward as we approached the helipad. “Or is that not your name on the side of that building?”

“My last name,” I muttered, setting her down. And just like that, I was…here. My chest ached, and I knew it wasn’t only from the lack of oxygen up here at nine thousand feet.

There wasn’t much I could do about what was waiting for me outside the aircraft, so I concentrated on what was inside, starting the postflight. I cut the engines, and the rotors spun slower and slower, like a countdown to a confrontation that had been waiting the better part of a decade. I fucking hated this place, and now it was supposed to be my home again.

What the hell had I been thinking?

I kept my attention on the helicopter, deliberately looking away from the path that led toward the resort as we opened the unlocked building and got the bird onto the cart that would move it from the pad and into the hangar. Theo drove her in while I guided, my focus narrowed to getting her secured.

But then she was tucked away, and my time for self-indulgence was over.

Theo checked a text message after we got the hangar doors shut. “Jeanine is here.”

“Go,” I told him. “You have a whole house to unpack.”

“Maria should be here with your truck in”—he checked his watch—“half an hour or so. You going to be okay?”

“Absolutely.” Maria and Theo had bigger things to worry about than me.

He gave me a nod and took off through the side door of the building, leaving me alone in the hangar.

It was small but well-sized for what we needed. Packed correctly, we could probably fit another bird in here. Equipment lined one side of the building, and there were two walled-off offices along the other, both sporting windows into the hangar.

I could see the desks in one of them, where we would set up bookings and take care of the business end of the operation, and the other was empty except for the stack of plastic chairs that looked like they’d been taken straight out of the church basement. It was a good area to brief the skiers.

“It’s set up exactly how you asked,” a familiar voice said from behind me.

My jaw flexed with recognition. I should have locked the damn doors.

“It’s great,” I said, turning toward the helicopter instead of my brother. “Did you get all the equipment Ramos asked you for?”

“It’s here.” Reed walked over and stood at my side.

He had an inch on me, but what I lacked in height I more than made up for in muscle. He’d spent his years in boardrooms, and I’d spent mine in the gym or flying. We had the same dark hair and eyes, the same chin, and definitely got our dad’s ears, but that’s where the resemblance stopped.

“You look good,” Reed said, giving me a once-over.

“Thanks. War was great for my complexion. You look…” I spared a glance over his slacks and Patagonia vest to his perfectly coiffed hair. “Polished.”

“That doesn’t sound like a compliment.”

“It’s not.” I shrugged.

Reed scoffed. “I left the share agreement on your desk. You know, the one that gives you an increased stake for every year you’re at Madigan.” 

I grunted. I wasn’t here for the shares and we both knew it.

He tilted his head in examination as he stared at the helicopter. “I thought you’d go with something more like what they’re using in Telluride. The Eurocopter—”

“Has a five-passenger limit and one engine for over two million,” I countered. “This triples that capacity with two engines at just under three million. And you signed off on it, remember?” The thrum of a familiar engine filled the hangar from outside. Maria had made it.

“I did.” He scratched the back of his neck. “Still, the hourly costs—”

I muttered a curse. “Am I talking to my brother or my business partner?”

His head snapped in my direction. “Will you talk to your brother? Because the only communications I’ve had with you for the last decade have been family business and this helicopter.”

I ignored the jab. “This is a Bell 212 HP-BLR. It’s been structurally overhauled and rewired within the last year, and yes, that’s fresh paint. It has less than ten thousand hours on the body and comes complete with gear cage”—I pointed to the long wire basket along the fuselage—“and rescue hoist.” I gestured toward the lift. “It has seating capacity for fourteen, and did I mention a second engine just in case that first one goes out?”

Reed rolled his eyes. “Weston—”

“Now the Eurocopter does have an operating cost that’s down around $875 an hour, and the Bell is going to take that up to $1,508, but even if we operate only at the Eurocopter’s capacity, we’re still going to profit about three grand a day.”

Reed opened his mouth, and I ran him over.

“Now, the Eurocopter is going to profit about $4,600 a day as long as they only book at five people. But the second they go to six, they have to take a second helicopter, and they won’t just book it for that one. They have a minimum of three. So let’s go with eight, just for fun.” I crossed my arms in front of me. “So, for eight people, our profit is seven grand a day and theirs is—wait for it—$6,300 a day because they have to eat the hourly costs for the second helicopter, and that’s before the cost of an additional pilot. We don’t have that issue. Every person over three is profit for us, and we can take parties of four or five. They won’t. You’re not the only one in the family who can do math. Oh, and did you hear the part about the second engine? Trust me, you’d care if you were the one flying it.”

Reed took a measured breath. “Damn, Weston, I wasn’t saying you made a bad choice.”

“No, you were just second-guessing it.” Like he always did.

“It’s a lot of money! And that thing is huge. Do you even think you can put it down on the ridgelines?”

“If I can put wheels down on the edge of a bombed-out building in a war zone to load up a platoon of soldiers, then I’m pretty damn sure I can handle some tourists in the snow.” I turned to face my brother, looking into his eyes for the first time in years. “You’re the one who asked me to come back and get this operation running. You called me, Reed. If you’d like to get behind the controls, then feel free, but flying up at this altitude is more complicated than the hostile takeovers you’re used to—”

“That isn’t even what I do—”

“Facilitating in those boardrooms of yours.”

“For fuck’s sake, this is getting us nowhere.” He rubbed his hands over his face. “Have you always been this much of an asshole?”

“Yes.” That shut him up.

A couple seconds passed in awkward silence, and we both cracked a reluctant smile.

“I guess you’re not in the mood to hear, ‘Welcome home’?” Reed asked slowly.

“Just tell me he’s not here and I’ll consider that welcome enough.” Seeing Reed was one thing, but handling our father? Fuck that. Not today.

“No. He’s off cruising the world for his honeymoon.” Reed sucked in a breath. “You know, he’s really changed these last—”

“Not interested.” Dad had sealed his fate with me years ago when he’d disappeared into himself after Mom died and left me to raise Crew. Reed leaving us to fend for ourselves while he moved to Vermont for college had been a dick move, but Dad’s abandonment? My fists clenched.

I resented Reed. I despised Dad. There was a difference.

“I can see you’re going to make this absolutely easy on both of us,” Reed muttered.

“I’m here, aren’t I?”

“Yeah. You are.” He grabbed something out of his pocket, and a second later, keys flew through the air. I caught them. “Seasonal lodging is full getting the new hires trained, but one of the employee housing duplexes is empty. It’s unit sixteen, up the hill —”

“I know where the duplexes are. Thanks.”

Reed took another deep breath and closed his eyes for a second, as though he was on the search for inner peace or something. “You could just stay up at the house with me—”

“I’d rather go back to the sandbox for a year than step foot in that house.”

He sighed. “The fact that I know you mean that is something else, West. It’s the house we grew up in.”

“I need to unpack.”

He put his hands up like he was under arrest. “At least that means you’re staying long enough to do it. Welcome home.” He tossed a second set of keys at me and walked away, leaving through the side door, where Maria sidestepped to get out of his way.

“How much did you hear?” I asked her as I locked up.

“Enough. I thought middle children were supposed to be the peacemakers?” We walked across the parking lot that smelled like fresh blacktop and climbed into my truck.

“I was too busy taking care of my mom that last year, then raising Crew, to give a shit about peace.” And Reed had been having the time of his life on a ski team in Vermont.

Life was a lot of things, but fair wasn’t one of them.

“Crew’s your little brother, right? The X Games guy?”

“That’s him.” I put the truck into reverse and then backed out of the spot, flipping us around so I could pull out onto the road. At least this wasn’t new. “Let’s get you to your new place.”

“I stopped on the way in and picked up a few essentials for you.” She motioned to the back seat where I saw a grocery bag. “Figured you hadn’t eaten, and you’re kind of an ass when you’re hungry. Plus, I was hoping if I got in your good graces, you wouldn’t make us start today.”

“You’re not the first person to say that to me.” A smile pulled at the corners of my mouth. “And thanks for the groceries. We’re not starting until tomorrow and, even then, it’s just an area orientation flight.”

I got her dropped off at her new place and waved to her husband, Scott, as I pulled out.

I passed the picturesque, alpine-style resort my mother had taken so much pride in and kept driving up the mountain. Her stamp was everywhere: the heritage red accents of paint, the friendly staff that waved at me even though they didn’t recognize me, and the window boxes that dripped red and white flowers that had yet to give in to fall. Except she hadn’t planted those flowers, not in fifteen years since she’d passed.

There were a few new potholes as I headed up the hill, but everything else looked the same. I pulled into the cul-de-sac where the employee housing duplexes sat, then parked along the curb, my mind preoccupied with Reed’s comments.

Had I chosen the wrong helicopter? Had it been a mistake to go for occupancy and the security of dual engines? Were we capable of luring that kind of clientele here while the expansion was built, or had I just doomed us to failure? I hadn’t even been home for two hours and Reed was already in my head.

I slung one of my duffels over my shoulder, then lifted the grocery bag, fumbling with the car, house, and hangar keys as I walked up the path to the door. Everything depended on this first season. Maria and Theo had uprooted their entire lives for this—for me, for the opportunity to do what we loved while working for ourselves.

And as much as I wanted to beat the shit out of Reed some days, he’d called. He’d asked for help, and I’d answered. Why? Because as much as I hated this place, I was also wildly in love with it, and the thought of it slipping into some corporate sleezeball’s hands if the expansion failed and Dad ended up selling wasn’t something I could stomach.

I keyed open the door and didn’t bother looking at the layout as I walked through the living room and toward the kitchen. The units had been built when I was a kid, and they were all identical. An open-concept, shared space made up the rectangle of the living room, dining room, and kitchen. Every kitchen had the same model refrigerator and stove, and a washer and dryer was in a storage-style mudroom toward the back. Every unit had two identical staircases inside that framed the space, leading to separate, lockable hallways that led to separate two-bedroom units.

It seemed like a waste of space to give me a four bedroom, but I wasn’t complaining. I’d never been big on having people in my space, which was probably why I’d never made a relationship work the way Theo and Maria had.

Or maybe it was just that I’d never met someone who I wanted to be around twenty-four seven.

I yanked open the fridge and grimaced, shoving the bacon and eggs Maria had picked up for me onto an empty shelf. Whoever had been here last hadn’t cleaned out the fridge. Guess I knew what I’d be doing after my run. The place was colorfully decorated with throw pillows on the couch and poster-sized framed pictures on the wall of far-off locations like the Serengeti, which was odd, considering we were a ski resort, but I guess everyone got sick of snow at some point. 

Climbing the staircase on the left, I took the bedroom and didn’t bother to unpack more than my running gear. Everything else could wait. The pressure I was all too acquainted with was in my chest, my head, begging to be released with every doubt that Reed had shoved into my brain.

Ten minutes later, I was laced up and could finally breathe. The trails were the same. The air burned my lungs with a familiar ache. The sun hit my skin with nostalgic intensity. My feet followed the rocky paths as though they’d never left them, as if I’d been running here yesterday and not ten years ago. I turned onto the dirt road that switch-backed up the mountain to the top of the lift and ran harder, pushing myself further. Only when my body screamed for mercy—and oxygen—did I turn around and jog back down, stripping off my shirt and tucking it at the back of my gym shorts. The fifty-degree air felt fantastic on my sweat-soaked skin.

It would take me at least a month to acclimate to the altitude, and longer to rebuild the endurance I’d gained while stationed at Fort Drum in New York.

By the time I got back to the house, all I could think about was food, and I fumbled in the kitchen for the cookware all the units were issued with, starting the bacon.

It was only ten thirty. How had my life changed so drastically in three freaking hours?

Because you said yes.

The sound of sizzling bacon filled the space as I cooked, turning the bacon with a fork.

The Bell was the right choice. It had the greatest capacity. Even if we grew to taking multiple groups to multiple runs, it was the way to go. It was the safer way to go. Then stop second-guessing yourself just because of Reed.

The front door opened and my head shot up. What the hell?

A blond woman walked in, answering a phone that was jammed between her ear and shoulder, juggling a purple backpack and another black bag, her attention on something behind her as she looked over her shoulder.

“Hey, Ava,” she said, tugging her keys from the door. “What’s up?”

My jaw slackened.

She had the kind of profile that belonged in photographs—high cheekbones, pert little nose, and a mouth that made my breath catch as it curved into a smile. That smile was fucking gorgeous, lighting up her entire face as she pivoted, and somehow I knew her eyes were Colorado blue. A nagging sense of déjà vu chewed at the edge of my mind, like a half-recalled memory from a drunken night.

But what was she doing in my house? Had Reed sent her? I opened my mouth to ask just as a miniature version of the woman appeared, scooting past her mother. The little girl saw me within a heartbeat, her little eyes flying wide.

I blinked.

She screamed.

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