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Chapter One Lucy Armstrong was standing on the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge when she first spotted the black helicopter coming at her through the sunset. Based on the rest of her day, that wasn’t going to be good. Twenty feet to her right, her assistant director, Gleason Bloom, ignored the chopper and worked the set like a depraved grasshopper, trying to organize what Lucy had already recognized as her career’s most apathetic movie crew. Her gratitude to Gloom for his usual good work was only exceeded by her gratitude that he hadn’t yet seen that the movie’s stunt coordinator was Connor Nash, now half hidden behind his black stunt van, arguing with a sulky-looking brunette. Of course, Gloom was bound to notice Connor sooner or later. I’ll just point out that it’s only four days, she thought. Four lousy days for really good money, we check on Daisy and Pepper, we finish up somebody else’s movie, we go home, no harm, no foul— Off to the west, the helicopter grew closer, flying very low, just above the winding Savannah River. All around were brush and trees, garnished with swamp and probably full of predators. “The low country,” Connor had called it, as if that were a good thing instead of a euphemism for “soggy with a chance of alligator.” And now a helicopter— Lucy rocked back as fifty-some pounds of five-year-old niece smacked into her legs at top speed, knocking her off balance and almost off her feet. “Aunt Lucy!” “Pepper!” She went down to her knees, inhaling the Pepper smell of Twizzlers and Fritos and Johnson’s baby shampoo as she hugged the little girl to her, trying to avoid the binoculars slung around Pepper’s neck. “I am so glad to see you!” she said, rocking her back and forth. Pepper pulled back, her blond Dutch Boy haircut swinging back from her round, beaming face. “We will have such a good time now that you’re here. We will play Barbies and watch videos, and I will tell you about my Animal of the Month, and we will have a party!” Her plain little face was lit with ecstasy. “It will be so, so good!” She threw her arms around Lucy’s neck again and strangled her with another hug, smashing the binoculars into Lucy’s collarbone. “Yes,” Lucy said, trying to breathe and hug back, thinking, Great, now I have to play with Barbies. She pulled back to get some air and said, “Nice binoculars!” as she tried to keep from getting smacked with them again. “Connor gave them to me,” Pepper said. “I can see everything with them.” “Good for Connor.” Over Pepper’s head Lucy saw the helicopter cut across a bend in the river, zipping through an impossibly small opening between two looming oak trees. It’s heading right for us, she thought, and whoever is flying that thing is crazy. Then Connor raised his voice and said, “No,” and she looked over to see the young brunette step up into his face, giving as nasty as she got. Lucy thought, Good for you, honey, and stood up, smiling at Pepper. “But I have to work first, so—” “I will help you work,” Pepper said, clinging to her, her smile turning tense. “I will be your assistant and bring you apples and water.” Lucy nodded. “You will be a huge help.” She took the little girl’s hand and looked back at Connor. After kicking herself twelve years ago for having been so stupid as to marry him, looking at those broad shoulders and slim hips now reminded her why her brain had gone south when she was twenty-two. Good thing I’m smarter now, she thought, and looked again. The way he was talking to the brunette, the way she leaned into his comfort zone, they were sleeping together. And she looked to be about twenty-two. That must be his target age, she thought. I should tell Gloom that, he’ll laugh. Gloom. She looked back toward the set and didn’t see him, but the helicopter was now zipping underneath one of the port cranes, then banking hard toward the bridge. Lucy shook her head, trying not to be impressed. The pilot probably had Top Gun in permanent rotation on his DVD player. Whatever happened to the strong, silent type? “Aunt Lucy?” Pepper said, her smile gone, her face much too worried for a five-year-old. “You’ll be a huge help,” Lucy said hastily. “Huge. Now, where is your mama—Ouch!” Her head snapped back as Gloom yanked on her long black braid from behind. “Connor Nash,” he said, and she dropped Pepper’s hand and grabbed the base of her braid to take the pressure off her skull. “Yeah.” Lucy tried to pry her braid out of his hand. “I was going to mention that.” “Really? When?” “As late in the game as possible. Which appears to be now.” “What were you thinking?” Gloom glared at her, his gawky form looming beside her. “Gloom?” Pepper said, and he looked down and let go of Lucy’s braid. “Peppermint!” He picked her up, swooshing her up to hug her, almost getting beaned by her binoculars as he smacked a kiss on her cheek. Pepper giggled, happy again, and wrapped her arms around his neck. “I’m so glad you’re here,” she said, strangling him. “We will have a party.” “You bet.” Gloom peeled one of her arms away from his windpipe. “Tell you what, go get your mama and tell her we need to make plans. There will have to be a cake—” “Yes!” Pepper said, and tried to wriggle her way to the ground. Gloom set her down, and she was off like a shot, blond hair flying and binoculars bouncing as she headed for the craft services table set up near Connor’s van, the source of apples and candy and water bottles and, evidently, her mother. Lucy frowned up at the sky. “We didn’t order a helicopter today, did we?” Gloom yanked her braid again. “Ouch. Stop that.” “Now about that Aussie bastard,” Gloom said. Down the bridge, Connor looked up at them, distracted by the commotion, and saw Lucy for the first time. His face lit up—God, he’s beautiful, she thought—and then he started up the bridge to her. “Connor called and offered us an obscene amount of money to finish this thing and I said no,” Lucy said, talking fast so that Gloom wouldn’t say, “Hello, dickhead,” when Connor reached them. The brunette went after Connor, catching his arm, and he stopped and tried to shake her off. Gloom’s dark brows met over his nose. “If you said no, why—” “And then Daisy called and said to please come down because we hadn’t seen her and Pepper in so long, and I said no, I’d send her the money to come visit us. . . .” The brunette held on, but Connor yanked free, making her stumble back as he came up the bridge, oblivious to the chopper closing in on them. He kept his eyes on Lucy, everything in him focused completely on his objective. And that’s why I married you, Lucy thought. “So why are we here?” Gloom said. “Because Daisy put Pepper on the phone and I told her we weren’t coming and she cried.” Lucy switched her attention back to Gloom. “Pepper’s not a crier, you know that, Gloom, but I understand that you hate Connor, so you go tell Pepper we’re not staying. Take Kleenex. Meanwhile, I’ll explain to Connor why he’ll be directing these last four days himself instead of paying us a small fortune to do what we can do in our sleep.” “What?” Gloom said and turned to follow her eyes and saw Connor. “Oh, fuck.” “Be nice,” Lucy said. “He—” She broke off as the bubble-shaped helicopter suddenly gained altitude and swooped over the closest bridge tower, sharp against the red sun. Connor stopped and looked up at it and then got an odd look on his face, anger or surprise, she couldn’t tell. Gloom stepped closer to her as the chopper dived to the middle of the bridge and abruptly slowed, coming to a perfect hover just to the east, well out of the way of the cables that lined the roadway. Then it pirouetted smoothly, moved sideways down the bridge, and to the ground. Pepper came running back from craft services to say, “Wow,” as the chopper touched down lightly next to the roadway. “There’s no helicopter on the shooting schedule,” Gloom said, frowning. “And that one has—is that a machine gun?” Lucy peered at the ugly-looking contraption bolted to the right skid. “I think so.” She bent to pick up Pepper. “I don’t think it’s on Connor’s schedule either. Look at him.” Connor’s shoulders were set as he reversed direction and headed for the chopper, walking past the brunette without even acknowledging she was there until she grabbed his arm again. Honey, never interrupt him when he’s on a mission, Lucy thought and looked back at the helicopter. A man got out, ignoring the blades whooping by just over his head, broad shouldered and slim hipped in Army camouflage, with none of Connor’s electricity or glossy good looks, just tan and solid in the middle of the noise and wind. He walked forward out of rotor range and halted to look back at the chopper, his lantern jaw in profile, completely still in the storm, and Lucy lost her breath. “Tell me that’s my action star,” she said. Another man dressed in jeans, a black T-shirt, and flip-flops got out of the copter on the other side, tripping over the skid as he stumbled out from under the blades. Then he stood up and joined the quiet man on the edge of the road, swaggering as he went. “That’s your star,” Gloom said. “Bryce McKay. Medium-famous comedian. Great at pratfalls. Action? Not so much.” “Right,” Lucy said, but her eyes went back to the quiet man, so much like Bryce physically, so much his opposite in every other way. Anybody that still had to have his act together. None of that macho garbage that had driven her away from Connor after six months of marriage. Connor shook off the brunette and moved down the bridge to the helicopter, his focus on the newcomer, his hands out at his sides. Hell, Lucy thought. He’s already gunning for this guy. The quiet man turned to face him. Connor stiffened, and the other man stared back, not moving. “Oh, boy,” Gloom said happily. “Oh, great,” Lucy said. “And they’re both thinking, ‘Mine’s bigger than yours.’ ” “I love this,” Gloom said. “It’s like High Noon. Maybe somebody will finally outdraw that son of a bitch.” “Yeah, that would be good except this is real life, not a Western,” Lucy said, exasperated. “Why don’t they just pull them out and show them to each other?” “Pull out what?” Pepper said. “Their binoculars.” Lucy put the little girl down. “I have to go see what’s going on, baby. You wait here with Gloom.” “I want to come,” Pepper said, her smile gone. “Oh, I do, too.” Gloom picked up Pepper. “I think this is going to be my party.” “Try to control your joy,” Lucy said and headed down the bridge to contain the disaster, trying not to admire the quiet man for remaining so still in the midst of the chaos. Copyright © 2006 by Argh Ink and Robert J. Mayer. All rights reserved.