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"…In preparation for takeoff, the captain has requested that all seat backs and trays be returned to…"
Clutching the armrests of seat 24C, Stephanie Olm-stead forced a deep breath. Heart racing, mouth dry, she told herself she was being ridiculous for worrying about the flight. She'd flown dozens of times. Had friends who were pilots. Her husband had been a navy pilot. After leaving the military, he'd worked for TransGlobal Airlines. He'd joined the Air National Guard. Went to Iraq. Never came home. Michael had told her that statistically, she was much safer on a plane than in her minivan. But if that were true, why was he dead?
"First time flyer?" the middle-aged man seated beside her asked while frenetically tapping away on his BlackBerry. He wore a rumpled gray suit that matched his equally rumpled hair. His musky cologne churned the blueberry bagel and OJ she'd hastily downed for breakfast.
"No," she managed. Though the September temperature in Little Rock had been in the uncharacteristic blustery fifties, the plane's interior had grown stiflingly warm as they'd sat waiting in Memphis to begin the second leg of their journey. Thank goodness she'd left her twins in the capable hands of friends, Olivia and Tag O'Malley. Her girls were prone to heat rash.
"We'll be fine," he assured her, ignoring a flight attendant's request to turn off cellular devices. "I'm a bag dragger. Do this all the time. Where you headed?"
"Miami." Why wouldn't he leave her alone? At least the row's middle seat was empty. If she'd had to be crushed up against the guy, she'd probably be even more uneasy. Her twin sister wanted to be with her, but she hadn't been able to leave work when Michael's friend Austin had made his request, leaving Stephanie to go on a solo mission.
"Duh," the guy said with a snort. "Every danged one of us is gonna end up in Miami. I mean, after that. Convention? Vacation? Work?"
"Tying loose ends," she said, hoping her curt tone conveyed that she wasn't in the mood for chitchat. "Concerning my dead husband."
"Oh." After finally turning off his phone, he said, "I was just at a cousin's wake. Damnedest thing you ever did see. He was a huge Dallas Cowboys fan, and right there on his casket was—"
"If you don't mind," Stephanie said over the MD-90's engine's roar, "I—I'd like to try getting some rest."
"Good luck." From the seat pocket in front of him, he withdrew a detective novel and a yellow bag of Peanut M&M's. "I never can sleep a wink on these tin cans. I like the big boys. Used to be when a man flew—"
"Please," Stephanie implored, the force of takeoff pressing her back in her seat, "if you could just be quiet, I'd appreciate it."
The man shot her a put-out glare before launching a conversation with the grandmotherly sort sitting across the aisle.
Blessedly alone in her private hell, Stephanie tried working through the steps her doctor had suggested for fending off a full-blown panic attack. Ever since Michael's unexpected death, she'd been plagued by the "buggers" as longtime friend and physician, Naomi, had dubbed the frightening incidents.
No one has ever died from a panic attack, Stephanie chanted three times in her head. The coping statement was supposed to make the stressful time easier, but in this case, the higher the plane climbed, the worse she felt.
Tugging at the collar of the white T-shirt she wore beneath a black velour jogging suit, she told herself the cabin wasn't abnormally hot. Even so, she wrangled free of her long-sleeved jacket.
Her throat felt closed off, and it was growing increasingly hard to breathe.
Naomi had prescribed medication for just this sort of thing, but being a single mom of nine-month-old twin girls, the last thing Stephanie wanted to do was not be alert when her babies needed her.
Twenty minutes into their journey, a flight attendant stopped the drink cart at the end of the row. "Would either of you care for a complimentary beverage or—"
"Gimme a gin and tonic and one of those cans of chips." Stephanie's seatmate handed the blonde a ten. "Keep the change, cutie."
The woman thanked him for the offer, but returned his change. "Ma'am?" she asked Stephanie. "May I get anything for you?"
A new body?
Stephanie shook her head.
Eyes stinging, she followed Naomi's advice to breathe slowly through her nose. When that didn't help, she tried more coping statements. I can be anxious and still deal with this situation. All I have to do is close my eyes and wait for this to pass.
Now clawing at her T-shirt, Stephanie knew she was on the edge of a dangerous place. Hot, so hot. If she could just get fresh air—away from the musky cologne—then maybe she could breathe.
She tried standing, but her seat belt blocked the way.
"Helps if you unbuckle it first," her neighbor said with a gin-laced chuckle.
"I have to get out of here," she said, yanking at her seat-belt buckle, and finally freeing herself only to encounter her seatmate's tray table. In her haste, she crashed into it, sending his drink flying all over his lap and the floor. "I have to get out of here."
"What the hell?" he complained, stowing his tray table before getting up to brush himself off.
She was going to be sick, and not caring if she caused the man further inconvenience, she ran to the back of the plane, aiming for the lavatory. The flight attendant's cart blocked her way. "I—I have to get off this plane," she said in a rush. "Michael died in the air and his body was never found and I know he burned in the explosion and I can't stand the thought of him that way and—" She was crying so hard, so hysterically, that her words stopped coming out.
She closed her eyes, willing herself back to her safe home, away from the horrific images that'd haunted her ever since her husband's death.
"Let's get this stowed," an attendant said, already moving backward.
"I have to get off this plane!" Stephanie screamed.
Running down the aisle, toward the front exit door, Stephanie tripped, but then was back on her feet. She wouldn't—couldn't—die this way. She'd been entrusted with raising Michael's daughters and she refused to let him down.
A man lunged for her, but Stephanie dodged him.
"I don't want to die! I don't want to burn." Present merged with the past—Michael's past. Her lungs felt raw from a lack of air. If she could only get outside—into the sun.
She'd just reached the front exit, and had her hand on the latch, when the cockpit door opened and out came a uniformed pilot.
"Michael?" she asked, having difficulty seeing through tears. "Please, you have to help get this open!"
"Zip tie her hands!" someone shouted. "She'll kill us all."
Everywhere people stared and pointed and talked all at once. Why wouldn't they stop? Or at least help her get away?
"Michael, please," she cried, "if you'd just help me go outside, then I could be with the girls and everything would be—"
"Steph?" After shaking off a bewildered expression, he slipped into professional mode. "I'm sorry," Michael said in a warm, yet firm tone, taking her hands, leading her away from the exit. "Hercules himself couldn't open this door midflight, but for your safety, as well as that of everyone else on board, I can't have you running wild."
"Are you taking me to another door?" she asked, her tear-filled eyes seeing him silhouetted in a golden glow. "I love you, Michael. Thank you for saving me. If I could just get a breath, I'll be okay."
"I know," he said, wrapping a cold plastic tie around her wrists and pulling it tight. "It won't be much longer and you'll have all the outside air you need. But up here, I'm afraid you're out of luck."
"You don't understand," she implored, crying all the harder now that he was leading her away from the light. "I can't die up here. I have to get home to my babies."
"No one's dying today," he said, urging her into a plush leather first-class seat.
"Oh, that's great," a disgruntled voice said. "All you have to do for an upgrade is threaten to kill everyone on board?"
"She did no such thing," said another voice. "She's clearly in a lot of pain, and—"
"Hush it with the touchy-feely garbage," said a more familiar tone, "she owes me a new drink. I knew she was a fruitcake from the second she sat down."
"If the pilot's out here," yet another voice asked, "who's flying?"
"These people hate me," Stephanie said. "See? They want me to get off the plane."
"Tie her legs!" a shrill woman shouted.
The pilot barked to a flight attendant, "Get them in their seats. I want no one within three rows."
An angry male said, "I paid for a first-class seat, and by God, no one's telling me, I—"
"Move," the pilot commanded, "or the second we land, I'll have you arrested." He sat in the seat beside Stephanie and fastened her safety belt. In a gentler tone, he asked, "Don't you know who I am?"
"You…You're Michael." As if in a dream, Stephanie tried cupping his dear cheek, but with her hands restrained, she couldn't quite reach. "I've missed you so much."
"I'm sorry," he said, "but, honey, I'm Brady. Remember? Brady McGuire. Clarissa's husband. When you and Michael lived in Dallas, we used to all hang out together?"
With a sniffle, she nodded. Dawning had been slow to come, but once it had, she wished for a rock to crawl under.
"Remember those crappy apartments by Burger Palace?" Chuckling, he shook his head. "While you and Clarissa gossiped, Michael and I shot hoops on that weed-choked court."
She still found it hard to breathe, but she nodded in hopes of making her old friend go away. "He hated losing."
"Me, too." Sobering, he added, "Michael was a good guy. He had a lot of friends at TransGlobal. You need to know that…"
Gaze darting, she saw the carpeted orange, blue and brown design on the bulkhead. The leather seats. Earth 33,000 feet below. Her pulse had slowed, but her stomach still churned.
"Stephanie? Do you know where you are?"
"Of course." Toying with the dangling end of the plastic around her wrists, she asked in a quiet tone, "Could you please cut these off? They hurt."
"Sorry." His smile was sincere. "You caused quite a stir, and even though we go back a long way, I'm afraid you're under house arrest."
Her mind's eye flashed to herself trying to open the cabin door. Humiliation didn't begin to cover the emotions coursing through her. Though physically painful, she brought her hands to her face, crying again, but for different reasons now. She was no longer frightened, but exhausted to a degree she'd never dreamed possible.
"Hey…" Brady awkwardly patted her shoulder. "Relax. Crisis averted. Stay put until we get to Miami, answer a few questions for the nice TSA gentleman, and you'll be on your way."
"A-am I going to jail?"
"I don't think so," he said, "but the air-travel climate these days is tricky."
"I'm a mess," she said.
"Understandable. I'll do everything I can to diffuse the situation."
"Th-thank you." As much as her husband had despised losing to the man in basketball, Michael had thought highly of Brady. He'd always said he was a great pilot and even better friend. Luck was shining down on her for him to be on board.
After a sharp exhale, he said, "Well, I should get back to the controls. You going to be all right if I leave you with Amanda? She's the flight attendant assigned to your seat."
"I'm good," Stephanie lied.
"Glad to see you in one piece." Craig, Brady's copilot, made a notation on the flight log.
"Me, too. We don't get paid enough for this kind of stuff."
"A doozy." Since 9/11, they'd been more common. "And you won't believe who it was."
"Lay it on me."
"Michael Olmstead's widow."
"No shit? " Whistling, he said, "Small world. He was a good guy."
Brady had seen a lot of things during his fifteen-year tenure as a pilot, but something about the sadness in Stephanie's blue eyes had struck a nerve. When she'd looked at him, calling him by her husband's name, his heart had gone out to her. He'd wanted to go all manly man and charge to her rescue, but that was kind of hard when he was in charge of one hundred and thirty-six souls in addition to hers.
By the book, he shouldn't have left the cockpit. But he'd already been out of his seat and on the way to the forward head when Amanda had called, officially informing him of the situation. Since the flight attendant had added that she thought the woman wasn't so much a threat to others as she was to herself, Brady had figured why not kill two birds with one stone and lend his crew a hand.
"You all right?" Craig asked.
"Sure. Steph couldn't weigh much over a hundred pounds soaking wet."
"I meant, in your head. You look like you've seen a ghost."
Shrugging off his friend's comment, Brady immersed himself in flight duties. Truth was, seeing Stephanie Olmstead again had been a shock. One that disturbed him until they landed.
Stephanie woke slowly, finding herself covered with a thin, navy blue airline blanket. Beneath the cover, her hands were still zip tied, but thankfully, a quick look around showed her to be on her own in the cabin. Heavy footsteps sounded on what she assumed was the jet bridge. Salty-smelling air flared her nostrils. Miami's humidity level was as abrupt of a change from Little Rock as was the rise in temperature.
Her stomach felt as if she'd swallowed a boulder. Dread hanging heavy over the implications of what she'd done.
"This her?" asked a uniformed police officer.
"Ma'am," the officer said, "I'm going to have to take you to an airport holding area for questions."
Fat, silent tears slid down her cheeks. "I understand."
Wearing a grim expression, looking as if he wanted to step in, but legally, ethically couldn't, Brady averted his stare.
To him the officer said, "I've taken statements from your crew and the rest of my team is speaking with passengers. Now that she's awake, I'll place Ms. Olmstead in a holding cell and return to the aircraft to debrief you. Ma'am, I'll need you to come with me."
Silently complying, she stood.
Before she could catch it with her restrained hands, the blanket someone had thoughtfully placed over her fell to the floor.
As much as she wished to be rescued, Stephanie knew she'd gotten herself into this mess, and had no one to turn to in escaping the situation but herself. Heart pounding even worse now than it had during her panic attack, she fought for air.
"Ma'am," the officer prompted, motioning her out of her row and into the center aisle.
"W-what about my purse and carry-on?"
"Both are now evidence."
This brought on a fresh wave of nausea.