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Another gust flung the tiny airplane sideways like a storm-tossed cork. Tom Laruso's formidable muscles strained as he fought the controls, leveling out the Cessna floatplane's wings and easing it down toward a lower and hopefully smoother altitude.
"Are we going to die?" the woman beside him quavered.
"Nah. This is just a little turbulence. No big deal. Think of it as a giant roller coaster. Take my advice, little lady, just sit back and enjoy the ride."
She subsided, white-knuckled, beside him. Didn't look as if she was buying the roller-coaster line. She'd been insane to insist on this trip, and he'd told her as much before they left the big island. But the client, who'd called herself only Madeline C., had been adamant. She had to get to Vanua Taru tonight. Hey, if she had a death wish, who was he to stand in her way? It wasn't like staying alive held any great appeal to him. He was game to dance with death if she was.
But now that they were out here flirting with the leading edge of a Category Three hurricanecyclones, they were called out here in the South Pacifiche wasn't so sure this was the way he wanted to go. He'd much rather lose himself in the bottom of a whiskey bottle and just drift away, numb and painless.
The plane lurched, its left wing jerking up suddenly and half flinging him into Ms. Madeline's elegant lap. His right hand gripped her thigh, which went as rock hard beneath his palm as any self-respecting stair-climber queen's. He murmured an apology and pushed himself upright. His biceps strained as he wrestled with the yoke and finally bullied the plane back into more or less level flight.
She would have to look just like Arielle. Tom glanced over briefly at his passenger in the waning dusk. Hell, she even smelled like Arielle, all light and floral like some damned butterfly. It was uncanny, actually. The fine bones, silver-blond halo of hair, the dreamy, mint-green eyes. How many women anywhere looked like that? And to have two so similar come into his life one right after another Yup. Weird. If Arielle was haunting him, he'd kill her oh, wait. She was already dead. Searing guilt twisted in his gut. God, he needed a drink.
Something flashed at the edge of his vision, a streak of light, falling from above and slashing through the arc of the propeller. The plane bucked. The engine hitched and coughed. Not good. Instinctively, he pushed the yoke forward, putting the plane into a descent. When in doubt, get out of the sky and land. Or in this case, float. Miles and miles of ocean stretched away in every direction. All the landing zone a guy could ever ask for. Even if it was heaving into massive mountains and valleys of salt water as the cyclone approached.
He started to glance down at the engine gauges to see if any caution lights had illuminated on the master warning panel, when another flash of white light streaked past his peripheral vision. Crap. Another lightning strike.
He had no more time to think on the possible implications of the strike as flames erupted from the engine cowling directly in front of him. His passenger screamed. Immediately he shoved the nose over as hard as it would go. They had to get down!
The steep dive blew out some of the fire, but it was coming out the other side of the engine, if the woman's continued screams were any indication. No time to reassure her, though. Not as if he had any comforting words for her, anyway. They were in a world of hurt. He fought the jerking plane grimly. The wild aluminum bronco was winning. This wasn't turbulence. Something was terribly wrong. The propeller wobbled, horribly unbalanced, all but shaking the little plane apart.
The ocean loomed near. He literally stood on the rudder pedals and hauled back on the yoke for all he was worth. The Cessna groaned its protest, metal creaking and wing spars shuddering under the strain of the g-forces he was violently overloading them with.
C'mon, baby, hang together just a few more seconds. Every muscle in his body strained, pushed to the limit to maintain control of the aircraft. Were he not as strong a man as he was, they'd already be spiraling out of control into the sea.
Something tore off the nose of the plane and flew back, slamming into the windshield directly in front of him. The Plexiglas cracked into a crazed spiderweb that completely blocked his vision of the angry mountains of water just below.
He shouted at his passenger, "We've got to bail out! Open your door and jump! It's not far to the water!"
He glanced over only to see her face contorted into a soundless scream of terror. She'd frozen on him. He let go of his own door handle to reach across her and push her door open. He shoved her toward the yawning void.
And then the plane exploded.
The burst of light and heat was blinding, like being consumed by the sun. He registered a vague sensation of the Cessna evaporating around him, flying outward until nothing remained but fire and the deafening roar of it. He floated weightless for a millisecond, then the explosion slammed into him in all its fury.
The world went black.
Madeline hit the water feetfirst, stunned by how much the impact hurt and how cold the ocean was. It shocked her horrified mind into a moment of utter, frozen panic, but then the icy chill penetrated and jolted her back to full awareness.
The great pressure of water all around her was terrifying. She opened her eyes, squinting against the violent sting of salt. But there was faint light above. She swam for it, her lungs burning. Her arms and legs were unbearably heavy, and she fought for all she was worth toward that flickering beacon of life.
It must have been only a few seconds, but each arm stroke, each desperate kick, each sluggish lurch toward the surface seemed to take an eternity. Her lungs were ready to explode and her eyes screamed their pain, but she fought on grimly.
And then she burst through to the surface, her head and shoulders erupting from the sea's deathly embrace, breaking free to air and a deep, blessed gasp. She was alive.
She treaded water, turning in a slow circle to observe the debris littering the surface around her. Huge ocean swells bobbed her up and down in twilight's last light. Now what the heck was she supposed to do? Her arms and legs were tiring fast. She paddled toward the nearest floating object, a large panel of metal lined with some sort of foam. Upon closer inspection, she saw it was the backseat of the airplane, a double-wide bench affair.
Whaddiya know. Those airplane seat cushions did float after all. She grabbed it and dragged her tired body across it. And as she glanced beyond the cushion, she spied something that tore a scream out of her hoarse throat.
A man's face. Floating just below the surface of the water, pale and ghostlike, slipping away slowly into the abyss.
The pilot. Tom Something. Alicia had recommended him.
She lunged across the cushion, kicking wildly, and grabbed for him. She got a handful of his shirt. She pulled with all her might and managed to bring his face up to the surface. Lord, he was heavy. She rolled off the long cushion and wrestled awkwardly to shove it underneath the man's back. She swallowed what seemed like gallons of salt water as she flailed frantically, trying to keep herself afloat, support the pilot's dead weight and get the damned cushion under the guy. Finally, she got him draped awkwardly on his back across the cushion and situated herself in the water beside him with one arm thrown across his chest to keep him from rolling off.
Ahead, she saw a faint line of twinkling lights on the horizon. Was it land? Or was it no more than a hallucination born of her desperate desire to be safe?
She did a slow three-hundred-sixty degree turn timed with when the swells lifted her up high and saw nothing else in the descending vacuum of night. Just a long, uninterrupted line where the gray-black of the sea met the blue-black of the sky to the north and south. Far to the east, she made out flickers of distant lightning. Tropical Cyclone Kato was roaring toward them.
She'd been a fool to try to race the storm to Vanua Taru, but she'd really wanted to just get the job done and go home to safe, boring Chicago before this awful trip got any worse. One of her Secret Traveler colleagues, Zoë Conrad, had gotten involved with a resort owner accused of murder and they'd nearly died before the police figured out another man had done it. Her second colleague and good friend, Alicia Greco, had been kidnapped and nearly killed by the same murderer, a serial killer who was still at large. The way their luck had been going, she was next in line for some disaster to befall her. Apparently, trying to run away from that bad luck had led her straight into it. A plane crash of all things!
For lack of anything else to do or anywhere else to go, she aimed the pilot's limp body at the lights and started kicking. She didn't even know if he was alive or dead. But if their positions had been reversed, she'd have wanted him to take her body ashore and not leave it for the sharks and whatever else lurked beneath the sea.
How long she swam, up and down the enormous waves, on and on in a morass of fatigue and pain that clenched her entire body in its vise, she had no idea. She threw up a few times. Probably a combination of swallowed seawater and shock. She stopped to rest a couple of times, too, but each time the flashes of lightning behind her seemed closer. She had no idea how far the electrical charge of a lightning strike could travel underwater, but she bloody well didn't want to find out the hard way. She dug deep and forced herself to get moving again.
True night fell quickly, the last vestiges of daylight wiped out by the encroaching storm bands of Kato. It was unbelievably dark out here. She could barely see her own hand in front of her face. Literally. Whenever she and Tom swooped down into the bottom of a trough and the line of shore lights was blocked, it seemed as if she'd been swallowed up by the depths of hell. But then the ocean would fling them dizzyingly, frighteningly high and she'd get a quick fix on her goal before being sucked down into the belly of the beast once more.
At some point, the pilot groaned and moved a bit. He was alive, then. Her exhaustion was such that she barely had time to register exultation that she wasn't entirely alone out here in the vast ocean. She didn't even particularly like water. She'd grown up on a farm in central Illinois, about as far from oceans as it got.
But in a flash, the Pacific Ocean had become her entire world, her entire existence. Just her and the cold, seductive embrace of the sea, slowly, inexorably sucking the life out of her. Well, the unconscious pilot was here, too. But at the moment, he was still little more than deadweight.
With dogged determination, fighting for both of their lives, she plowed on, pitting her tiny will against the massive expanse of ocean all around her.
That line of lights might possibly be drawing a little closer, but it could also totally be her imagination. And then, all of a sudden, she became aware of a black silhouette on the horizon. A jagged hump above the line of lights. Land.
Relief coursed through her, making her limbs warm and weak. Not far, now. She became aware that she was sobbing, breathing in ineffective gasps, but she didn't care. Almost there. Almost safe. With renewed strength, she swam on, using her free arm to paddle while she kicked the fiery spaghetti that was her legs.
Finally, she heard waves breaking nearby and smelled the green, living scent of land. She was close to shore now. Something banged into her foot, startling her. It was rough. Oh, God. Was that a shark? To be this close to land and be attacked now .
She kicked furiously. Again, something banged into her feet, hard.
Then enlightenment broke across her mind. That was sand dragging against her toes! She tried to stand up, but the bottom past the sandbar was still a bit too deep. She paddled on a few more yards and was able to stand up between waves this time, her chin barely out of the water. She pushed off the bottom and swam a little more. In a few seconds, she was able to walk between sets of waves. When the breakers weren't rolling in, the water was no more than chest-deep. But when the angry surf caught them up and flung them forward, she guessed the water was ten-feet deep beneath them.
The good news was the waves pushed the pilot's makeshift raft shoreward in front of her. The even better news was a sandy beach stretched before them. They wouldn't be dashed to death against rocks tonight. A violent undertow of waves rushing back out to sea sucked at her legs and lower torso. It was all she could do to hang on to Tom's raft and ride the surface waves to shore.
But then she could stand up, no more than thigh-deep. Even when a big wave came in, she was able to jump into it and land mostly back on her feet. She dragged Tom the last few feet to shore on his floating pallet. Without the sea's buoyancy to hold him, he abruptly was unbelievably heavy. But she had to get him far enough out of the water so he wouldn't drown.
Using the piece of metal backing still attached to the cushion as a sort of sled, she dug in her heels and leaned back, pulling on his inert form with all her strength. By inches, she managed to wrestle him up the beach to what seemed a safe distance from the water.
They'd made it.
Relief making her even shakier than she already was, she knelt down on her hands and knees to check him for injuries. Not that there was a whole lot she could do about it even if she had found something wrong with him, but it seemed like the thing to do. She ran her hands over his bare legs they were muscular and hard. Under the tattered remnants of his short-sleeved shirt, the guy had an impressive set of shoulders. She didn't find any obvious broken bones or cuts.
The guy sure was in great shapeand shaped great.