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By Judith Lyons
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFire in the cockpit.
Fear pounded through Winnie Mae Taylor like a squadron of F-16s on attack, coating her skin in a cold sweat and cramming her heart into her throat.
Another blue flame flicked out from under the dash, licked over the instrument panel and then disappeared again. The tiny flames came and went so quickly she might have thought the blue flicker was a figment of her imagination, but the steady curl of smoke streaming from under the dash and filling the cabin of the small, single-engine plane was all too real.
"Winnie! Get this plane turned around. We've got to get back to the airport." Bob Smith, her passenger, snapped the sharp command.
Winnie strangled the smooth plastic of the yoke. With his black, wavy hair, tanned skin, and the beard shadow covering his square jawline, Bob Smith reminded her of a panther. Handsome. Strong. Alluring. He even moved like the black predator. Controlled. Fluid. All leashed power and natural grace.
His presence filled the cabin of the small plane. His heat poured into her right shoulder. And his raw maleness charged the atmosphere, making her nerves hum and her stomach churn and frustration pound in her brain.
She should have followed her instincts in the lobby this morning and run the minute she'd seen the man. One glance had been enough to tell her Bob Smith was the type of man who reminded any woman within a city block that she wasn't just a female - she was a woman. And the last thing Winnie needed was that kind of reminder.
After her ex-husband's crushing betrayal, she'd come to Alaska to start a new life. An independent life. A life without men. Unfortunately, running hadn't been an option this morning, and it wasn't an option now. Like it or not she and Smith were in this together.
Pushing herself into action, she snapped the main switch off, killing all electricity to her instrument panel. If the fire was under the dash, it was electrical. She didn't need to feed the flames. And the engine and propeller created their own electricity.
She pitched her voice above the loud whine of the engine. "Forget the airport. We need to start looking for a place to set down. Now."
Smith's dark brown eyes fixed on her like a pair of lasers. "You sure it's that bad? We're a long way from nowhere."
Didn't she know it. But she'd thought through every lousy option. The fire wasn't at a critical point yet. It was still small, more smoldering circuits than leaping flames at this stage of the game. But with fuel lines riddling the front of the cockpit, it would be foolish to make a run for the small airport they'd flown out of. "We're not waiting for it to get that bad. We're setting down now. Help me find a hole in these trees."
He stared at her unwaveringly as he wondered, no doubt, if she was making an intelligent, thought-out decision or just panicking.
She met his gaze squarely. "It's a rational decision, Smith. Help me pull it off."
He held her gaze another long second, then he gave his head a short, quick nod. "One emergency landing strip coming up." He turned to his window, beginning his search for an open stretch of land.
A small thread of relief slid through her. Getting them down in one piece was going to be hard enough without her passenger fighting her on every decision. And it felt good to have Smith on her side.
There was something about the man - an air of danger, of confidence - that made her think he'd been in tight situations before. And if he was confident she could get them down, maybe they were going to squeak out of this ugly situation.
Tears running from her eyes from the smoke, she turned to look out her own window, searching desperately for a clear space in the landscape below. There had to be an open space down there. There had to be.
But only the dark green tops of pines stared back at her as the noxious smoke filled her lungs, sending her into a coughing fit. "Open your window," she hollered, her voice rough from the caustic fumes.
Smith leaned toward her, his shoulder brushing hers, his brown eyes leaking tears from the smoke just like hers. "Won't the fresh oxygen feed the fire?"
"We'll have to risk it. I can't land blind. Or unconscious. The only thing burning under that dash is plastic. And it's loaded with cyanide. Open your window."
With another succinct nod he turned the latch on his window and pushed the bottom open.
She followed suit. Fresh air rushed into the plane, sending the dingy smoke into a frantic swirl that momentarily blinded her. But once the air currents established themselves they pulled the smoke out of the plane.
She sucked in the fresh air. Smoke and fumes still burned her throat, but she could breathe without coughing. And she could see the ground more clearly now. Unfortunately, the only thing coming into view was a mountainside of pines. Not so much as a pinhole of terra firma peeked through the dark green tops. "You see anything over there?"
"There's a small space off to my right."
She didn't like the word small, but with nothing on her side she might settle. Urgency pounding at her temples, she snapped the plane over, tipping the wings steeply so she could look out his window. Following his pointed finger, she spotted the opening immediately. Frustration poured through her.
"It's not big enough."
"How big a space do we need?"
She drew in a breath to holler, coughed, then tried again. "I need at least fourteen hundred feet. Eighteen hundred would be better. That way we can fly back out if we douse the fire before it causes major damage." Not that she had much hope of that. But thinking ahead is what flying was all about.
"I got nothing here."
"Keep looking. I'm going to fly over the peak. The whole other side of the mountain will open up for us once we're over." And she prayed to God there wasn't a tree on it. They glided over the top.
Nothing but a sea of dark green pines.
Excerpted from Alaskan Nights by Judith Lyons Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.