Read The Gauntlet Online

Authors: Lindsay McKenna

The Gauntlet

Family tradition deemed Molly Rutledge should excel in the Navy. Yet sensitive Molly was all at sea when faced with the competitive jet jocks at flight-engineer school especially steely Captain Cameron Sinclair. The sexy widower and the lovely ensign were drawn together like magnets, but Cam doubted Molly would last…still, he couldn’t help taking her under his wing—even though putting her through her paces was making his heart run the gauntlet.

Previously published.

The Gauntlet

Lindsay McKenna

Table of Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Epilogue

Chapter One

“H
ow could you do this to me, Molly?” Jason Rutledge demanded. “My only daughter fails Navy flight school!”

Molly stood uncertainly before her father in the den of her parent’s spacious, richly appointed, New York City penthouse. She felt heat flame up her neck into her cheeks, and inwardly chastised herself for blushing. At twenty-three, she wished she’d outgrown such girlish reactions.

Her father, standing rigidly behind his desk, was a lean, spare sixty-year-old with steel-gray hair and steel-rimmed glasses. Scott, her brother, sitting nearby in his motorized wheelchair, was a younger, much less harsh version of the older man. Molly’s stomach knotted as her parent glared at her, his blue eyes narrowed. “Father—”

Jason gestured irritably to the left. “You graduated from Annapolis with honors, Molly, and won the right to go to Navy flight school. So few are chosen for it. Foreign countries send their best and brightest to train there. And you failed, Molly. You failed. What about Scott? You’ve let your brother down, too. You promised both of us you’d do your best to win your wings.”

Molly opened her mouth, then shut it. Having just driven to New York from Whiting Field near Pensacola, Florida, she was physically and emotionally exhausted. For six weeks she’d trained at Whiting, trying to make the grade at the toughest flight school in the world. She hadn’t attained the level of flight skills necessary to receive her wings. All the way home, she’d tried to prepare herself for this confrontation; but to no avail. Since her mother’s death thirteen years ago, her father had run their family with an ironclad hand. Molly longed to see some sign of softening in her father’s set, demanding features, but found none. Scott was hanging his head, staring disinterestedly at his hands clasped in his lap.

Pacing back and forth behind his huge maple desk, neatly stacked with files, Jason shook his head. “All my—I mean, our—hopes were pinned on you. I was an ace in the Navy during Korea! Your grandfather was in the Navy during World War II, and was also an ace. He even earned the Navy Cross.”

“I know that.” Unable to hold her father’s incisive glare, Molly stared down at her simple leather shoes.

“If Scott hadn’t had the accident he’d have gone on to Annapolis instead of you. He would have gotten his wings.”

Hurt, more than anger, stirred in Molly’s heart. Licking her lips, she whispered, “Father, I did the best I could for both of you. I’m sorry, truly I am. I gave it all I had.” She shrugged, her voice softening. “I just don’t have what it takes in the cockpit. My instructor said I’d make an excellent commercial pilot, but not a fighter pilot.”

With a snort, Jason crossed to the bar and poured himself a Scotch on the rocks. “We supported you all the way through Annapolis. Weekly letters from Scott. Phone calls from both of us. My God, short of flying for you, Molly, we couldn’t have done more. We couldn’t get the wings
for
you!” He took a hefty gulp of the Scotch and shook his head.

The hurt in Molly’s chest widened. She had dreaded coming home for her thirty-day leave before her next assignment. Lifting her chin, she tried to smile but failed terribly.

“I’ve been assigned to the Navy test pilot facility at Patuxent River, Maryland, to train to become a flight engineer. Do you know how many Annapolis graduates want that plum? Maggie and Dana both agree that working on testing planes is just as respectable a vocation as being a pilot.” Her best friends, whom she’d met at and gone through Annapolis with, were still at Whiting Field, finishing flight school.

“Good God, Molly! Hasn’t four years at Annapolis done anything for you? Navy pilots are recognized as the best in the world. Being a flight engineer is like being the bridesmaid.”

Frowning, Molly held her father’s gaze. “I disagree with you. My grades were excellent, Father. Not everyone gets a shot at testing. I think I can do it.”

“You thought you could get your wings, too,” Jason pointed out angrily. He set his glass on the desk with a sharp bang. “What makes you think test-pilot school is going to be any easier, Molly?”

“Well, I don’t—”

“Damn right, it won’t be. It will be ten times harder! Everybody and their brother wants to test planes, to be a ‘Golden Arm.’ Out of all those jet jocks, only a handful make it to that level of skill. If you thought flight school was tough, believe me, young lady, think again about Patuxent River. They wash out nearly everyone—only ten percent graduate.”

Molly glanced over at Scott, who was watching her silently, accusation in his green eyes. She sighed. “All I can do is try, Father.”

“Besides,” Jason went on as if he hadn’t heard her, “the test pilots are the stars. Flight engineers never get the glory.”

“It’s my understanding that the flight engineer
is
the test,” Molly gritted out. “The flight engineer makes up the program that the pilot uses to test the aircraft. No engineer—no test. I think that’s pretty important.”

“But the world only recognizes test pilots—not the shadows behind the scenes!”

“Besides,” Scott added dejectedly, “my friends don’t know anything about flight engineers. They all know about test pilots.”

“Then,” Molly said with forced lightness, “I guess you’ll learn a lot about what I do in the letters I write to you, Scott, and educate your friends in the process.”

Glumly Scott muttered, “I guess…. But it’s not the same, Molly.”

An ache threaded through Molly, so deep that she could only stand in the thick silence as both men studied her. She tried to remember what Maggie had told her: do the best you can, with no apologies. There is no failure if you try. Still, Molly couldn’t help but say, “I’m sorry I disappointed both of you. I promise I’ll do better at Patuxent River.”

Jason Rutledge sat down, holding his Scotch between his hands. “Retrieve our honor, Molly. My associates at the stock-brokerage firm couldn’t believe you were washed out of flight training. You don’t realize the embarrassment it caused me to admit that my daughter didn’t make the grade. At least let me give them good news that you’re making it as a test-flight engineer at your new station.”

Molly knew suddenly that she would never endure thirty days at home with her father and brother. “If it’s all right with you, Father, I’m going to leave in about a week for Lexington Park. It’s a town right outside the gates of Patuxent River. I’ll have to find an apartment and get moved in.”

“Fine.” He glanced over at her. “Do you need money?”

“No, sir.”

“Are you sure?”

“Very sure.”

With a sour face Jason muttered, “I’m a millionaire twenty times over, but money can’t buy me the one thing I wanted most for this family: an heir to carry on our Navy-pilot tradition.”

Knowing that every emotion registered on her face, Molly turned away, drained. No amount of “I’m sorrys” would make her father let go of his disappointment at her failure to get her wings. She left the den as quietly as she had come, and climbed the stairs to the second floor of the penthouse.

At the top of the steps, Molly hesitated, peeking into Scott’s room. Her father had had an elevator installed to make it easy for him to move from floor to floor by wheelchair.
Top Gun
posters hung on the walls. So did posters of the F-14 Tomcat, the Navy’s premier fighter. The F/A-18 Hornet, another Navy fighter, was prominently displayed on the wall above Scott’s bed. Plastic models of all the modern-day airplanes cluttered his bookshelves. Molly felt sorry for their housekeeper, Emma Sanders, having to dust and pick up everything her brother left littered about the room.

Molly opened the door to her bedroom. Once inside, she stopped, feeling an immediate sense of comfort and security. The walls were papered with pale-pink and white flowers. Moving to her bed, she picked up her doll, Amanda. When her mother, Corrine May Rutledge—daughter of a very rich banking family—had died of cancer, Molly had spent hours on her bed, crying for her loss. Only Amanda, a rag doll whose painted face was nearly worn off from years of loving, had offered any solace.

Smiling gently, Molly barely touched Amanda’s gold yarn hair. “How many of my tears did you soak up over the years, Mandy?” When Molly was nine years old, her mother had bought Amanda for her as a birthday gift because the doll had blond hair and green eyes like Molly’s.

Life had become harsh and demanding after her mother’s death. Her father, who had always run his stock-brokerage house like a military machine, had brought that strict, cold order home. Molly remembered sobbing alone at night, longing for her mother’s warming embrace, kisses and gentleness.

Who would have thought that Molly Rutledge would turn out to be an Annapolis graduate? It still surprised Molly to think about it. She shook her head and placed Amanda back against the bed pillows.

Turning around in the middle of the room, she breathed in the past she’d left behind four-and-a-half years ago. It was a soft room in comparison to the harsh conditions she’d endured at Annapolis. Her china tea set was arranged on one shelf; several other dolls that shared the loneliness of this huge penthouse with her sat on another. Everything in the room shouted femininity, not militarism.

With a slight quirk of her lips, Molly pulled her suitcase up on the bed and began to unpack. In the eyes of her family, she was an utter failure. The only way to redeem herself was to become a test-flight engineer. Had she jumped from the frying pan of flight school into the fire of test school?

Her hands shook slightly as she slid her folded lingerie into a dresser drawer. Somehow she had to make her father and Scott proud of her again. After stowing the empty suitcase under her bed, Molly took a shower. Changing into a pair of dark gray slacks and a light peach-colored sweater afterward, she was ready to face her family for dinner.

Just as she reached for the doorknob, a knock sounded. The door swung open to reveal Scott sitting in the hallway.

“Dinner’s on, Molly.”

“Thanks, Scott.” She picked up a hand-painted silk floral scarf and tied it into a loose knot around her neck.

Scott’s hands rested on the wheels of his chair. “Father’s really upset. No one feels like eating.”

“Life goes on, Scott. I’ve already apologized. If this funereal atmosphere is going to continue for the next week, I’ll leave sooner.”

“Oh…no. You promised to tell me all about Whiting Field. Your letters are one thing, but hearing the stories in person is best.” Scott forced a smile. “Come on, you can go down in the elevator with me.”

Molly nodded and waited patiently while Scott turned his wheelchair around on the hardwood floor and headed toward the elevator at the other end. “At twenty-five, I’d think you’d have other things to occupy you than waiting for my stories,” she told him dryly.

Moving his wheelchair into the spacious elevator, Scott shrugged. “Father has given up on me becoming a stockbroker. It just isn’t for me.”

Molly pressed the button that closed the brass and glass door, and laughed for the first time since her arrival home. It felt good to discuss something other than her failure as a pilot. “Knowing Father, he doesn’t want to turn his company over to us or anyone. Not that I’d want it. I’m not cut out for the barracuda halls of stockbrokering.”

“Roger that.”

Molly smiled. For as long as she could remember, Scott had wanted to fly and become a Navy pilot—a life plan preordained by her father since Scott’s birth. Scott would go to Annapolis, graduate and become a pilot like the other men of the Rutledge family. An auto wreck two weeks before he was to leave for Maryland had paralyzed him from the waist down. As an afterthought, Jason Rutledge had pushed Molly into the appointment. She’d gone willingly, wanting to uphold the family honor.

The doors whooshed open to the first-floor hallway, and Molly followed Scott out of the elevator. As always, the highly polished oak floors and the expensive oil paintings lining the walls, made the place look more like a museum than a home.

“Scott, haven’t you found anything that interests you yet?”

“Your continuing saga in the Navy is what interests me, Molly. I really enjoy your letters. You’re a great chronicler. I read and reread them, and then I call my friends and relay your stories.”

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