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Tuesday, December 16
Adelaide Fairfax had been apprehensive about taking this flight from the very beginning. For one thing, she preferred not to be in such close proximity to her election opponent. Maxim Donahue, the man who'd filled her husband's state senate position via special election two years ago, was working on his laptop across the aisle and slightly in front of her. He was the only other person on the seven-seater Cessna except for the pilot and, although he refused to show it, he couldn't be happy that she'd been the one to claim Franklin Salazar's endorsement at their meeting this morning. A very wealthy developer, Franklin would not only be a generous campaign benefactor, he'd be a strong influence on other key supporters.
But, despite the awkwardness of their association, it wasn't being cooped up on a private plane with Donahue that'd tempted her to stay in Tahoe and forgo the governor's fundraiser in Los Angeles. Neither was it the Christmas music that filtered through the speakers, reminding her of a season she preferred, for the third year, to forget. It was that she'd always hated flying. The newspaper article she'd read last week, detailing the shocking number of uncharted plane wrecks in the Sierra Nevadas, didn't help. This range contained some of the highest mountains in the northern hemisphere—craggy, rocky peaks that soared above the timberline.
Those same craggy peaks were now lurking somewhere below them in the blizzardlike weather. How close, Adelaide didn't know. But she had a feeling it was too close.
She knew the instant they were going to crash, but because of her fear, she couldn't really describe it as a premonition. It wasmore of a gut instinct, a sudden prickly sensation that told her something terrible was about to happen—the same sensation she'd experienced right before she'd received the call notifying her of her husband's fatal car accident.
She opened her mouth to ask the pilot if everything was okay but didn't have a chance to voice the words. One of the powerful downdrafts they'd been battling almost since takeoff jerked the plane, and it lost altitude at such a rate her stomach jumped into her throat.
Senator Donahue looked back at her, his expression, for once, devoid of the contempt he typically reserved for her. It was an honest "Oh, my God" moment when their eyes met and they understood without speaking that the primary they both wanted to win so desperately the following June no longer mattered. Chances were they wouldn't see Christmas.
The impact of the crash rattled Adelaide's teeth and threw her against the harness of her seat belt, like a one-two punch to the stomach and chest. At the same time, a heavy object fell from above, striking her on the temple. It hit hard enough to disorient her, but she didn't lose consciousness. She sat, eyes wide open, staring at nothing but darkness. The Christmas music was gone, replaced by a low hissing sound.
The smell of gasoline registered simultaneously with the pain she felt from the landing. She had to climb out, get away from the fuselage. But how? If there were emergency lights, they hadn't come on.
Could she find the exit? If she did, could she open it? She was shaking so violently she doubted she had the strength to move even a small piece of luggage out of her way.
How had this happened? The pilot had promised they'd be able to get through. And God owed her a small break, didn't He? She'd barely been able to function since Mark died. The coming election, and her decision to enter the race—what should've been Mark's race—had given her a reason to go on.
Ironically, it was also thanks to the coming election that her life was now at risk.
She struggled to get her bearings, but the creaks and groans of the plane and the heavy dust-filled darkness worked against her. Never had she imagined herself in such a situation, where survival depended entirely on her own ingenuity and instincts. A pilot, a flight attendant, a firefighter—she'd always assumed there'd be Someone In Charge in case of an emergency. Someone else.
Had the senator or pilot survived? What were the chances?
Not good, surely. She didn't hear anything—no movement, no groans. Was she completely on her own?
She held her breath. The howling wind gusted into the cabin as if a hole had been ripped in the metal, or the hull had broken apart. Maybe she wouldn't need to open the door. Maybe she was mere inches from freedom and didn't know it. But if she made it out alive, how long would she survive in conditions like this? Were there any emergency supplies on board? Flares?
I'm going to die.
That realization made her shake. But what did dying mean, exactly? As a foster child who'd been bounced around so many homes she'd lost track, she hadn't stayed in touch with any of her "parents." She had no children. She'd already turned her business over to the woman who'd worked for her almost from the beginning, so she could campaign.
For the briefest of moments, she allowed herself to fantasize about seeing Mark again, touching him. He'd been the one constant in her life, the only person who'd ever made her feel loved. She missed his appreciation for fine wine and good books and old architecture and modern art, missed the way he laughed and made her laugh. Was he still the same in some other dimension, maybe living in heaven, as so many organized religions taught?
The possibility calmed her. If heaven existed, maybe she wouldn't be alone for Christmas, after all. Lord knew she'd trade her money, her company and her hopes of winning a state senate seat for some kind of contact with Mark—would do it in a heartbeat. No more forcing herself to meet each new day without the husband she'd lost. No more aching loneliness. Only someone with a fierce will to survive could come out of an accident like this. And that wasn't her. She'd fought enough battles. It was better to give up right away, let go—
A moan interrupted her thoughts. She was almost reluctant to acknowledge what that moan meant. Another survivor complicated her desire to slip away without a struggle.
It had to be Maxim Donahue, she decided. He opposed her in everything.
But it wasn't Donahue. The sound came from the pilot. She could tell because Maxim called out to him a second later, his voice so scratchy and strained it made her wonder if he'd been seriously injured. "You… okay, Mr. Cox?"
Cox. That was the pilot's name. They'd been introduced when Adelaide came on board, but she'd been too busy keeping to herself to concentrate on someone she'd likely never meet again. A friend of the governor's had provided the plane and the pilot. Governor Bruce Livingston wasn't about to let bad weather beat him out of what he had planned for his biggest fundraiser of the year. He'd invited Donahue as a way to show his continued support; he'd invited her as a way to reach her wealthy supporters. She knew it was a calculated move, but her acceptance was every bit as calculated. Although most folks expected the governor to stand by Donahue, her inclusion in this event signaled that he wouldn't be entirely opposed to seeing her take over. It was a perfect strategy—playing the middle ground, as Livingston did so well.
"Mr. Cox?" Donahue called, a little louder.
The moaning stopped. "Get out…now!" the pilot rasped.
Other than that hissing she'd noticed earlier, silence fell, as absolute as the darkness.
"Adelaide?" Donahue said next.
It was odd even in such a desperate moment for this man, who'd only ever addressed her as Ms. Fairfax— lately with a starched courtesy that bordered on rudeness—to use her first name. But at least he sounded more coherent than he had a minute or two before. She knew that should've brought relief. Instead, she experienced an unmistakable reluctance to give up her hope of seeing Mark again.
"Hey, you still with us?" he persisted.
Don't answer. She knew what she was in for, couldn't face it. They'd freeze to death even if they got out.
And yet, despite all the odds stacked against them, despite the possibility of Mark waiting for her in heaven, the drive to go on, to live, finally asserted itself.
"I'm here." Unfortunately. Why couldn't it have happened quickly? Why couldn't it be over already?
In her seat. She hadn't budged because she'd assumed it was pointless. She didn't know where to go or what to do. Her head hurt, and a wet substance rolled down the side of her face, but it couldn't be tears. She was too shocked to cry.
"Answer me, damn it," he snapped while she was puzzling over her own reaction.
The force of his demand, and the same instinct that had led her to answer the first time, drew another response. "Where I was when w-we crashed."
That information was enough to guide him to her. A moment later she felt him touch her. His hands ran over her head, her face and then her body. They moved briskly, purposefully—and they missed nothing.
Mark… The yearning nearly overwhelmed her.
"I don't feel any major injuries," he said. "Can you walk?"
Not Mark. Mark's replacement. Mark's old acquaintance turned political enemy. "I th-think so." Why weren't his teeth chattering? How could he remain calm, even through this?
She should've expected it. She'd often said he was made of stone. His wife, already ailing with cancer, had committed suicide two years ago, six months after Mark's death. But Maxim Donahue had never shown so much as a hint of regret. She could still remember the implacable expression he'd worn when he appeared on television on a completely unrelated matter only days after Chloe Donahue's funeral.
Adelaide had always resented him for the ease with which he'd been able to return to business as usual. He made carrying on look simple. Probably because he cared about nothing as much as his own ambition. That was part of the reason she'd decided to run against him. What Donahue had said about her late husband provided the rest of her motivation.
"Let's get out of here," he said.
The pilot didn't utter another sound. Cox. Adelaide knew she'd never forget his name again. Not if she lived to be a hundred.
"Wh-what about M-Mr. Cox?"
Light appeared. At last. But it wasn't the emergency lights. It was the blue glow of flames licking across the cockpit. The flicker illuminated the slumped figure of the pilot.
"Get your hands out of the way!" Maxim Donahue shoved her fumbling fingers aside, unlatched her seat belt and half dragged her to the door, where he pulled the barely visible emergency latch. But the door wouldn't open. They were trapped. Unless they could discover where that wind was getting in….
Grabbing her shoulder, he shoved her toward the back. "Find the opening. I'll get Cox."
Find the opening. Adelaide could feel the wind, the cold, even the wet snow seeping through the wreckage, but her head injury left her dizzy, stupefied. She couldn't think. Especially when she heard Donahue behind her, his gruff voice carrying a terrible note of finality. "He's gone."
"Gone?" she repeated, unable to absorb his meaning.
He didn't clarify. He pushed past her and kicked at the walls and windows. But the fire in the cockpit yielded more smoke than light. Flames stole along the floor, threatening to destroy the only hope they had.
Adelaide's nose and throat burned. And the sticky substance, the blood, coming from the wound on her head kept running into her eyes. She wiped at it and blinked and blinked and blinked, but it made no difference. She couldn't see. She couldn't breathe. She couldn't imagine how they'd live another five minutes.
Suddenly, the plane shifted, and a great gust of ice and snow blew back her hair.
Donahue had found an opening. He'd widened it. That brought a poignant burst of hope. But at the same time, metal screeched against rock, echoing miserably against the night sky. Then the plane tilted at a crazy angle and the floor beneath their feet gave way.
The frigid blast of air that represented escape hit Maxim Donahue just as the plane plummeted down the side of the mountain. Had he not already lunged for the opening, he would've experienced a second crash—and Adelaide Fairfax would've gone down with him. As it was, the movement of the plane jerked her so hard he nearly lost hold of her. Numb from the cold and blinded by swirling snow, he wasn't sure he'd managed to pull her out until her hand patted its way across his chest as they lay, prone, in the snow. Maybe she wanted to confirm that he was still with her. Or maybe she was just seeking warmth. They were both going to need it. He wondered if they'd last long enough to be rescued.
"I'm here," he yelled above the raging storm. "You okay?"
"That depends on how… you define okay." The wind made it difficult to communicate, but at least she seemed to be making sense. The shock of the crash had caused her to react with a sort of stunned lethargy. He was under the impression that she'd still be sitting in her seat if he hadn't unbuckled her restraint and prodded her to get moving. But that didn't surprise him. There'd actually been studies showing that only a small fraction of the people involved in plane wrecks got themselves out.
Another small percentage grew hysterical. The majority did neither. They simply stayed put and allowed themselves to die.
A bang resounded far below, indicating that the plane had come to rest.
The pilot was still inside.
The image of Cox's body, now probably as mangled as the twisted metal that encased it, made Maxim sick. But he couldn't change what was, couldn't turn back time. His only choice was to do what he'd done with Chloe's death—bury the shock and grief in some other part of his brain so he could function. If the panic he held at bay ever took root, it'd spread so fast he wouldn't be able to stop it. Just as Adelaide had remained buckled in her seat, watching flames devour the cockpit, he'd find himself lying in the snow, unable to move or even think. And if ever he needed to keep his wits about him, it was now. Together with a wing and some other debris from the crash, which looked more like props in a movie, they were a few feet from the edge of a steep precipice. The wind whipped at them feverishly. If they weren't careful, those gusts would toss them over the side just like the main body of the plane.