When a jumbo jet crashes outside Baltimore one cold night, their respective jobs put them face-to-face at the grisly sceneand force Matt and Honor to reconsider the difficult decisions that resulted in their long-standing "single forever" status.
As Matt tries to come to terms with his feelings for Honor, he gets word that she hasn’t reported in since starting the search for a missing child. Reverting to his SAR training, Matt leads the search team as a vicious winter storm bears down on the area. Will he find her in time? And if he does, will they find their way back to each other or go back to living life alone?
About the Author
Loree's articles have appeared in dozens of international & national newspapers & magazines. In addition to nearly 2,500 feature stories (writing as L.A. Lough), she "ghosted" hundreds more that appeared in trade & technical publications.
A firm believer in the "what goes around, comes around" theory, Loree developed & taught numerous fiction & nonfiction writing courses for area colleges, writers' organizations, & the prestigious Writer's Digest Writing School. Through these efforts, she has mentored hundreds of students, & the list of those now published has passed 100. She also believes in dedicating a generous portion of her annual income to favorite charities & organizations. See the "Giving Back" page at her web site www.loreelough.com for a complete list.
Loree & her husband split their time between a humble home in the Baltimore suburbs & a cabin in the Allegheny Mountains, where she takes great pride in her "identify the critter tracks" skills.
Read an Excerpt
Book 2 of the First Responders Series
By Loree Lough
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2012 Loree Lough
All rights reserved.
02:00 November 1 Patapsco State Park, near Baltimore, Maryland
Honor Mackenzie shivered, and not just because the temperature had dipped to near-freezing. The far-off wail of a coyote harmonized with the moaning wind, and the creak of leafless trees only intensified the ghostly atmosphere.
Crisscrossing beams of high-powered flashlights sliced through the sleety black haze and shimmered from the river's surface. The Patapsco River seemed alive tonight, pulsing and undulating like a monstrous turbid snake. From deep in the woods, Honor felt the cagey stares of a thousand unblinking eyes and shivered again as she panned a wide arc, walking backward every few steps; the crash had probably sent every critter scurrying ... but that's what she'd told herself those scary hours with Uncle Mike, and the night a feral dog bulleted from the underbrush, teeth bared and snarling and—
"Is it just me," Elton huffed, jogging up beside her, "or do I smell gas?"
She jumped, then jumped again to make the first one look like an attempt to maneuver around a tree root. "Maybe it's that swill you claim takes off the chill." Elton was a good guy but got way too much pleasure from scaring her out of her shoes.
A puckish grin warned her to brace herself, but before he could deliver a biting comeback, a frantic baritone blasted through the fog: "Over here!"
"Sending up a flare," hollered another.
Most of the Boeing 747 that plummeted from the mid- November sky during rush hour had landed square in the middle of I-95. The cops shut down all lanes in both directions to enable the two available medevac copters to airlift passengers of the airliner—and those in the vehicles it had crushed—to Baltimore's shock trauma. And because eyewitnesses reported seeing fiery bits of the plane falling due north of the explosion, Honor's search and rescue squad was sent into Patapsco State Park. Her unit included a couple of young guys just returning from Texas, where they'd earned wilderness certifications. Like thoroughbreds at the gate, both chomped at the bit to prove they could keep up with more experienced personnel. With any luck, they hadn't yet heard the rumors about her past and wouldn't pummel her with the usual acerbic questions when the mission ended.
The scent of jet fuel grew stronger with every step, and she thanked God for the sleet. Yes, it added to their physical discomforts, but it would douse any embers hiding in the wreckage. Helped her focus on the task, instead of potential taunts, too. Elton stopped walking so fast that his boots sent up a spray of damp leaves. His voice was barely a whisper when he grated, "Oh, my God!"
Honor followed his line of vision. "Oh, my God" was right.
There, in the clearing a few yards to their left, was the tail section of the airliner. Like a beached whale, it teetered belly up on the bank, one mangled wing pointing skyward, the top half of the airline's logo submerged in riverbed muck. Twin witch-finger pillars of smoke spiraled upward, as if reaching for the treetops in a last-ditch attempt to pull itself free of the sludge.
A nanosecond later, they were on the move again, hopping over rivulets carved into the earth by rushing rainwater, ducking under low-lying pine boughs as they picked their way closer. Two pink palms slapped against a window, and between them, the bloodied and terrified face of a boy no more than ten. The sight startled Elton so badly that he lost his footing in the slimy mud. Arms windmilling, he staggered backward a step or two before regaining his balance. "Donaldson!" he bellowed.
"Kent? That you?"
"No," Elton snarled, "it's your old maid auntie." He muttered something under his breath, then added, "Fire up the radio. Let 'em know we need more boots on the ground. And equipment, on the double. We've got survivors!"
Well, at least one survivor, Honor thought, closing in on the craft. She hopped onto the rain-slicked wing and inched nearer the window, then lay her palm against the glass and matched the kid's handprint, finger for finger. "You're okay," she said, trying to look like she believed it. Not an easy feat, now that she'd aimed her flashlight's beam over his shoulder. Only God knew what he'd seen, or which of his family members lay motionless at his feet. She'd seen that frantic expression before, and it reminded her of the day when the Susquehanna overflowed its banks and slammed through a Boy Scout camp. After hours of searching for one still-missing kid, something made her look up, and she found him, clinging to a tree. Though the water had receded, he'd been too frantic to climb down. She'd probably said "Don't be scared" a dozen times before he found his voice. "Why do grown-ups always say dumb things like that?" he'd demanded.
And she'd never uttered the words again.
"You're okay," she repeated now. "Help is on the way."
"Mackenzie, get down from there."
The poor kid's pleading, teary eyes locked with hers, seeking reassurance and hope, and she couldn't look away. Wouldn't walk away, either.
In the window's reflection, she saw Elton behind her, pointing toward the biggest column of smoke. "I'm dead serious, Mack. Get down from there," he repeated, this time through clenched teeth.
A second later, the heat of yellow and orange flames flared on her right. The boy saw it, too, as evidenced by a pitiful wail that, because of the thick, double-paned window, no one outside the airplane could hear. "Help is coming," she said again.
And please God, she prayed, let it get here fast.CHAPTER 2
Matt parked as far from the crash site as possible, not only to avoid getting mired in the mud but also to ensure he could sneak up on the scene. The tactic helped him get lead stories before, and with any luck, it would work this time, too.
He'd been on high alert since the call came in from Liam Wills, the editor who, according to his wife, showered and slept with his police scanner. "Phillips," he'd barked into the phone, "drop what you're doing and drag your sorry butt over to I-95." Liam's voice had that edgy "this is a headline story" quality to it, so Matt wasted no time dialing Mrs. Ruford. House phone pressed to one ear, cell phone attached to the other, he'd arranged for Harriet to stay with the twins while assuring Liam that he was on his way.
He'd spent nearly two hours on the interstate, observing, listening, grabbing a quote here and a radio transmission there, then headed over to the Patapsco. Now, wearing a thick brown Carhartt jacket and yellow reflective vest—the closest match to fire department gear he could find in the Cabela's catalog—he wished he'd kissed his sleeping sons' foreheads before leaving home. More than likely, he'd make it back before they woke up, but even if he didn't, it wouldn't surprise them to find their favorite sitter, cooking an old-fashioned country breakfast when they came downstairs. He'd packed their lunches and book bags after supper, same as always, and it wasn't like they'd know he hadn't said that final, quiet goodbye, but he'd know, and it ate at him. If he'd planned better ...
Friends and family claimed he had a rabid case of OCD and followed the accusation with "you should see a shrink about that." Matt took it with good-natured ease because his Marine training taught him that a man can never be too prepared or too organized. He chucked his well-supplied rucksack behind a tree and scanned every face at the crash site. For his purposes, Matt needed a rookie, and they were easy to spot, thanks to overconfident "been here, done this a lot" expressions. He'd spent enough time, volunteering on SAR missions, to know that a true pro, having really done this a lot, looked a whole lot more tense and a little bit suspicious, especially of reporters. And who could blame them, considering how often they got the facts wrong?
He spotted a newbie on the fringes of the tree line, arms crossed and wearing his best "I'm calm and in control" frown. Matt sidled up and mimicked the younger man's stance. "Man. What a mess, huh?"
"Yeah, and weird." He shook his head. "I read Chicken Little to my kid, just this afternoon."
Matt picked up on the newbie's "things are falling out of the sky" parallel. "What in blue blazes happened?"
"I'm guessing mechanical failure, but—"
"Okay, Phillips," a gravelly voice interrupted, "assume the position." Sergeant Sam Norley stomped up, his size-fourteen police-issue shoes splattering muddy rainwater on both men's pants cuffs.
Matt grinned. "What's the charge this time?"
"How's 'impersonating a professional' sit with you?"
"You need some new material," he said, accepting the cop's hearty handshake. "So how goes it, Sam?"
"It goes." He gave the rookie a quick once-over. "I see you've met Matt Phillips, big-shot reporter."
"Don't know about the big-shot part," said the newbie, "but I knew he worked for the Sun. Saw him talking to Finley couple weeks back, when that truck got hung up on the Key Bridge." He said to Matt, "Austin says you two go way back, to before 9/11."
If this wasn't a "gotcha" moment, Matt didn't know what was. Caught, trying to pass himself off as a firefighter, then reminded of his days as a down-on-his-luck beat reporter in New York. The image of the smoking mountain of rubble that had been the World Trade Center flashed in his mind's eye, and he quickly blinked it away. Better to focus on the good times that happened before that awful day because God knew there weren't many afterward, for him or Austin. "Don't know who was dumber back then, him or me."
"From what I know," Sam said, smirking, "that'd be you."
Chuckling, the newbie laughed and stuck out his hand. "Name's Gibson," he said as Matt shook it. "Abe Gibson."
Instinct made all three men duck and press their hats to their heads as a helicopter hovered overhead, spotlighting the still-smoldering jetliner. "So what's the count?" Matt shouted over the roar of rotors.
"How long have you been here?" Sam asked.
"'Bout ten minutes."
"Then you must've seen the ambos ..."
Matt shook his head. "No, I came the back way, to save time."
Sam harrumphed. "Not enough time, then." He told Matt that so far, no one knew what had brought the plane down, but, by his estimate, a couple dozen people, pulled from vehicles that skidded into the crash site, were on their way to area hospitals. "Half dozen more were medevac'd to shock trauma, and that's just here at the river. Before the sun's up, I expect that number will triple on 95."
Triple, at least, Matt thought, remembering what he'd seen over there. He was wondering if his contact at the University of Maryland's R Adams Cowley Center was on duty when Abe said, "You really okay talking about all this in front of a reporter?"
Sam responded to a signal from a cop across the way. "Be there in two," he bellowed, holding up two fingers before facing Abe. "Matt, here, is good people. Most trustworthy reporter I know."
"Trustworthy and reporter don't even belong in the same sentence."
All three men turned toward the sultry female voice. Matt recognized her as Honor Mackenzie, who'd been featured on TV and in the papers for her work with search and rescue dogs. Twice, he'd seen her in person, too. The first time had been about a year after losing Faith, when he'd covered the collapse of a parking garage, and then about six months ago, after a construction trench gave way and buried two guys laying cable for Verizon. Both times, Liam had sent him to cover the cause of the cave-ins, not the rescues. And both times, Matt had to suppress guilt inspired by the feelings Honor had stirred. What kind of guy had thoughts like that so soon after losing his wife? Not a loving husband, for sure.
Yet here he stood, thinking them again.
Judging by the looks on Sam and Abe's faces, they felt the same way. Not that Matt could blame them. Honor was sure easy on the eyes. "Where's Rowdy?" he asked, mostly to change the subject.
"Back in the SUV," she said, but her attitude added, "Not that it's any of your business."
"Well," Abe said, backpedaling toward the river, "let's hope you won't need the dog."
Honor never took her wary eyes off Matt. "You've got some nerve, cowboy," she all but growled, "impersonating a first responder."
He'd run into plenty of people who aligned with the "reporters are scum" mindset, but she had them all beat. By a long shot.
She took a step closer. "I read all about how you won an award for that piece about that slimeball who conned a bunch of old folks out of their life savings. I guess you got that story masquerading as a banker, huh?"
Matt was half tempted to defend himself by admitting he'd never written a word that couldn't be substantiated, even when his gut told him the unsubstantiated stuff was 100 percent true. But why waste his breath?
She crossed her arms. "So, does it work?"
He bristled a bit under her scrutinizing glare and hoped his stiff-backed posture would hide it. "Does what work?"
"You know, skulking around like a sewer rat in search of really good gore for your front page."
Maybe she'd been dumped by some slimy reporter. Or a slimy reporter had written something damaging about her. Later, he'd find out what had turned her into an unbridled reporter-hater. For now, he said, "I'm not fussy. Run-of-the mill gore will do."
She rolled her eyes. The biggest, greenest, longest-lashed eyes he'd ever seen.
"Get this big goof out of here," she told Sam, "before he gets hurt. Or gets somebody else hurt." Halfway between where they stood and the river, she stopped. "Hey, Sam," she yelled, "I think you oughta arrest him. For impersonating a firefighter. Think writing about that'll earn him a Pulitzer?"
"Mmm-mmm-mmm," Sam said, shaking his head as she jogged back into the woods, "if I wasn't married, and old enough to be her father, and thirty pounds overweight ..."
He laughed, cleared his throat, and didn't stop talking about the crash until Matt had scrawled pages of notes. "Can I buy you a cup of coffee and a donut, to show my appreciation?" He nodded toward the parade of TV news trucks and reporters, trying to penetrate the line of cops that kept them far from their story. "Ain't every day the paper beats 'em to something this big."
"Just keep my name out of it. Anybody wants to know what we were talking about, I'm gonna tell 'em you were pumping me for information about Mack," he said, heading back toward the jetliner, "and I said you're not good enough for her, no matter what anybody says."
No matter what anybody said? "Good way to pique a reporter's interest!" But he didn't have time to follow Sam for details. Not if he hoped to file his story in time for the morning edition and get home before the boys woke up.
Once he'd thanked Harriet and sent her home with a fistful of fives—and a mug so full of milk and sugar it seemed dishonest to call it coffee—he'd put the twins on the bus and head back to Calvert Street. Traffic downtown was bound to be easier to maneuver by then, and if he was lucky, Liam would have another juicy assignment waiting in the queue.
Staying busy was about the only thing that would keep his mind off the feelings Honor Mackenzie had awakened inside him ... and the pounding guilt that went with them.CHAPTER 3
Honor hated quoting tired old clichés, but seriously, the nerve of some people!
Bad enough Phillips tried to pass himself off as a firefighter. If the guy was Sam's idea of trustworthy, she hated to think what the cop's version of dishonest looked like. No doubt, the reporter was shooting for another Pulitzer-winning story, but not even furthering his career excused the conscienceless way he'd tried to pry facts from rescue personnel, even those in the thick of administering aid.
Correction. Phillips hadn't tried. He'd succeeded, and the proof was splattered across the front page of this morning's Baltimore Sun. The memory of him scurrying back and forth, pad and pen in hand as he questioned the dazed flight crew was bad enough. But then he'd started in on ambulatory victims. The full-color photo of the copilot, head wrapped in white gauze and nose hidden by a metal splint, infuriated her. "Some people will do anything for a minute in the spotlight," she griped, tossing the paper onto the kitchen table. She wouldn't be the least bit surprised to find out he had a few other traits in common with her Uncle Mike.
Excerpted from Honor Redeemed by Loree Lough. Copyright © 2012 Loree Lough. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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