Reeling from the death of her daring Navy SEAL brother, reserved McKenzie Prescott decides to honor him in the only way she can think of--by finishing his bucket list. Suddenly, she's doing things she's never dreamed of--like jumping off waterfalls...and inviting the intoxicating stranger she meets in Las Vegas to help her with some of the more racy items on the list
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Phoenix Rising Series
By Brynley Blake, Brenda Chin
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2017 Brynley Blake
All rights reserved.
I stand at the edge of the rocky ledge, ready to step off and probably plunge to my own death in the crystal blue water seventy-five feet below. But I'm here to do a job, and dammit, I'm going to do it, even if my heart is pounding and I'm pretty sure I'm about to pee my pants, vomit, or maybe both. Who in their right mind jumps off perfectly solid ground into a waterfall? Especially one this high?
My brother, that's who. He'd gotten every ounce of thrill-seeking DNA in the Prescott family, leaving none for me. He'd started his bucket list when we were kids, and over the years, he'd added to it and then systematically began ticking off each item on the list, starting with becoming a Navy SEAL. That had enabled him to check off quite a few other things as well — meeting the president, learning to sail, skydiving, parachuting, learning another language, riding in a helicopter, flying a Cessna, and kissing a girl on every continent, not counting Antarctica. And not just kissing, he'd added with that slow and easy grin of his as I'd covered my ears and hummed. No little sister wants to hear the sordid details of her big brother's sexual escapades, particularly when they're as legendary as my brother's apparently were.
He'd finished some of the things on the list with his band of brothers, the men who served on his SEAL team with him, and who were just as crazy and just as addicted to adrenaline as he was. My brother had done more living in twenty-eight years than most people do in a lifetime.
But then he died, killed in Pakistan during a covert mission that according to U.S. officials never even happened. I swipe the back of my hand angrily across my eyes. I am NOT going to cry. Not today. Not here in Costa Rica with Jorge, the adventure tour guide I hired through the hotel where I'm staying, watching me with concern in his dark chocolate eyes. I somehow managed to pull myself out of the whirlpool of grief long enough to get here, and I'm determined to not let it pull me under again.
I take a deep breath, trying to beat back the panic. This is for Liam. Liam, who will never tug my hair again or flash that mischievous smile of his at me, which when we were kids, usually meant I was going to end up in trouble, or on one particularly memorable occasion, in the back of a police car. This is for Liam, who will never finish his bucket list.
Jorge's soft-spoken voice interrupts my thoughts. "You okay, senorita? You want to do this, yes?" He looks about as skeptical as I feel, probably because I have a death grip on his arm. And to be honest, I don't look like the kind of girl who'd jump off a seventy-five-foot waterfall. I look like the kind of girl who's more comfortable at a Tupperware party than in the jungle.
I loosen my grip and nod. I can do this. For Liam. I close my eyes and step off the ledge.
* * *
I wake up to the sound of pots clanging and hushed voices murmuring in the next room. My head throbs and my cotton-like tongue feels like it's two sizes too big for my mouth. I open my eyes and look around the unfamiliar darkened room. It's small but tidy, with white tile floors, simple curtains that billow slightly from the breeze wafting through the open window, a small side table, and a set of plastic shelves. I'm lying in a twin-sized bed, wearing a soft cotton dress that definitely isn't mine. Oh God. Where am I?
Panic starts to close in, and I suddenly can't breathe. My heart starts racing, and I feel clammy and sweaty all at the same time as a wave of nausea rolls over me. Dammit, McKenzie, this is not the time for a panic attack! Then again, maybe it is. Maybe I've been kidnapped like the women my best friend Charlotte told me about when she tried to talk me out of taking this trip. Maybe I'm about to be sold into some sex trafficking ring or held ransom for drug money.
Consumed by an overwhelming need to get the hell out of here, I throw off the lightweight blanket and sit up abruptly. Unfortunately, my head doesn't agree with this plan, and everything goes black for a few seconds.
As my vision clears, I catch a flicker of movement out of the corner of my eye and look up in time to see a little girl of about ten, whom I hadn't even noticed sitting in the corner, scamper out of the room. A minute later, Jorge enters, accompanied by a woman with long, dark hair tied back to reveal a round face, smooth olive skin, and clear brown eyes.
"Senorita, are you okay?" Jorge's gaze is filled with concern. I wonder if he always looks like this or if it's just when I'm around. I remember that same expression of trepidation mixed with wariness when we were at the top of the falls. Oh my God. The falls. It all comes rushing back to me in a flood of memories: my fingers digging into Jorge's arm as I contemplated the seventy-five-foot drop into the frothy, churning water below, the roar of the rapids, the welcoming cold mist of droplets cooling my skin, which was sweaty from the three-mile hike up to the top, and the determination and love for my brother that finally compelled me to step off the edge of sanity and into the chaos below.
What struck me first was how loud it was — much louder than I expected — as water pounded against water, the sound almost like gunfire. Then I realized there actually was gunfire. Suspended in air over the deep pool below me, I caught a blurred glimpse of black moving through the trees, and another figure in camo facing the falls, a machine gun in his hands. It was completely surreal, and I watched with a curious sense of detachment, like I had a front row seat at a Tom Cruise movie.
Not for long, though. My attention was diverted by the more immediate and disturbing realization that I had just jumped off the top of a freaking waterfall and I was currently freefalling through the air toward my certain death. When I first researched waterfall jumping, I read accounts from people who'd done it. They said that jumping into the falls was peaceful, like becoming one with the waterfall and you were just a drop of the whole. Me? I felt nothing but terror all the way down.
After what seemed like forever, I finally plunged into the clear blue pool below, and as the water closed over me, the world stopped. It was eerily quiet after the cacophony above, and for a second, I wondered if I was dead. Unlike the chaos of the falls, this was peaceful, and I just wanted to stay there, wrapped in the comforting embrace of liquid blue silence with no memories to haunt me.
Then Jorge was there, dragging me up out of the water, fear in his eyes as he searched my face.
"Are you okay? Were you hit?" he demanded in his thickly accented English.
"What? No! I didn't hit anything but the water." Euphoria and pride flared through me as I realized I'd actually just jumped off a waterfall. I gripped his shoulders and practically shook him in my exhilaration. "I did it, Jorge! I did it!"
I followed his gaze to my shoulder, where a stream of red rivulets trailed down my arm to my fingertips before dripping into the water, where it slowly swirled into pink before dissolving entirely into the endless blue. The last thing I remember was Jorge's voice from far away saying, "Senorita?" At the memory, my fingers tentatively touch my shoulder and encounter a thick bandage made of gauze and tape.
"What happened?" I ask, willing myself not to freak out.
"A bullet grazed your shoulder," Jorge explains. "Gracias a Dios!" He makes the sign of the cross over his faded T-shirt. "It could have been so much worse."
I stare at him, not quite comprehending what he's saying. The gunfire had been real? "A bullet? How did I get hit by a bullet jumping off a waterfall?"
"There were several men," Jorge tells me. "I don't know where they came from. They weren't there, and then they were. They started shooting as soon as you jumped." He scrubs his hand across his face. "I thought they'd killed you when you didn't come back up after you hit the water. They must have, too, because they disappeared as quickly as they appeared. I managed to get you out and carried you here. To my home."
He nods at the woman at his side. "This is my wife, Rosita. She doesn't speak very much English, but she works as a nurse at the hospital in San Jose, and she bandaged your arm. You were in shock, so she gave you a sedative. She said sleep would help you heal."
I glance from my shoulder to Rosita. "Gracias."
She nods slightly, but she doesn't smile back.
"I haven't told the authorities what happened. It's none of my business."
I stare at him. "What do you mean you haven't told the authorities? I got shot! Don't they need to know?" I can't help the panic from creeping into my voice.
He shrugs. "When a beautiful woman traveling alone — one who is afraid of heights — hires me to take her waterfall jumping, I know something does not add up. But I have what you Americans call good instincts, and I feel sure that despite whatever trouble you are in, you have a good heart. I couldn't just leave you in the jungle at the mercy of those men, regardless of what you did. But I have my family to think about. Rosita assures me your injuries are not serious and you will be fine to travel. I will be happy to take you back to your hotel, or if that is not safe for you, I can send my brother to get your bags for you. But you cannot stay here any longer. I'm sorry."
I'm having trouble wrapping my head around everything Jorge is saying. I look around for the video camera, sure I'm being punked. "What do you mean, 'what I did?' And what trouble? Why do you think I'm in trouble?" "Because they were shooting at you, senorita."
I suddenly can't breathe. I take a couple of huge gulps of air, trying to slow my racing heart. It's no use. The bullet didn't kill me, but I'm going to die anyway of a heart attack.
Rosita says something in Spanish to Jorge, and he peers into my face. "You don't look so good, senorita. You should lie down for a minute."
"But someone was shooting at me! Why was someone shooting at me?" My voice is getting higher and higher, with a wobble to it that matches the one in my stomach.
"You don't know why anyone would want to kill you? You wouldn't be the first American to come to our country for drugs." He studies my face.
"No! I swear! I'm just a wedding dress designer from North Carolina. I've never even smoked a cigarette, much less done drugs!" I'm on the verge of a full-blown panic attack.
Jorge lays his hand on my shoulder soothingly. "I am probably mistaken, senorita. This is Costa Rica. It's a little unusual to have this sort of crime outside of the city, but it's not unheard of. In fact, I read just yesterday that cocaine smuggling is becoming quite a problem here. It was probably nothing to do with you. It was most likely a drug deal gone bad. It is serious money here. You just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"You think?" I want to believe him. I have to believe him. Because why would anyone want to kill me? I've never touched drugs in my life, and I don't know a soul here, other than Jorge. In fact, no one knows I'm here other than my two best friends. I take a deep, calming breath. He's right. It couldn't have had anything to do with me.
He exchanges a look with his wife and then nods reassuringly. "Absolutely. All's well that ends well, no?"
* * *
Three days later ...
"Shut up!" My friend Gemma gapes at me as I tell her the story when I'm back at work at the tiny shop we own together with our friend Charlotte in the historic downtown area of Charleston. Although I got back the night before last, I slept almost a full twenty-four hours after the rushed but uneventful trip back home, which included a layover in Miami. Other than a quick text to my friends to let them know I was home, I hadn't mentioned why I had cut my trip a day short until we were all together this morning.
"It was terrifying! Thank God I didn't realize what was happening until it was all over. Jorge, the tour guide who took me to the volcano and whose wife made sure I was okay afterward, said I was lucky. But when I think about what could have happened ..." I shudder.
Back home, surrounded by the utter normality of my real life, the last few days in Costa Rica seem surreal. I'm still not sure my brain has fully processed everything that happened. Even with the reminder of my bandaged arm, I can't help but wonder if I imagined the whole thing — the waterfall, the men with guns, Jorge's house, and the unfamiliar but intoxicating exhilaration I felt after I realized I'd actually jumped off the falls. In fact, that alone is enough to make me wonder if it was all a dream, because that's definitely not like me at all.
"Maybe we should put the Las Vegas trip on hold," Charlotte suggests.
"We are NOT putting the Vegas trip on hold!" I slam my mug down so hard that coffee splashes onto the design spread out on the table in front of us. "It's the only thing on Liam's stupid list that I'm actually looking forward to. You guys cannot cop out on me."
I glare at the faces of my two closest friends.
"We're not copping out," Gemma reassures me. "But if men were shooting at you ..."
"They weren't shooting at me. I'm sure of it. The tour guide was sure of it. Why would they? I'm a twenty-four-year-old nobody who designs wedding dresses for a living. Unless that horrible Shelby Meyers put out a hit on me." I try to joke it off, referring to one of our most recent and notoriously high-maintenance clients who gave the term "bridezilla" a whole new meaning, but the memory still makes me uneasy.
Gemma laughs, but Charlotte still looks worried. "What about your arm?"
"It's fine," I assure her. "I went to the doctor yesterday, and she said it's healing nicely. It's not even that bad. And good news." I smile. "It's not even my dice-throwing arm!"
"As if you've ever even thrown dice," Charlotte scoffs.
"Exactly." I sigh. "Trying to finish Liam's list has made me realize that I lead an utterly boring and uneventful life. I'm like a twenty-four-year-old grandma."
"That's not true," Gemma says. "You've just had a lot to deal with in your life. Having fun and being reckless has never really been an option."
I'd like to believe her. But even when I was younger — before my mom got cancer when I was a junior in high school and died two years later; before my father had a heart attack a year after that; before Liam became a Navy SEAL and then got killed on some stupid mission in the Middle East — I was more content to sit under a tree with a sketch pad than climb it. I just don't have an adventurous spirit. Liam was the daredevil in the family. I was the careful one who always played it safe, afraid of stepping over the lines or causing any trouble. Although the way I felt after jumping off the falls had been pretty amazing.
It's one of the reasons finishing Liam's bucket list is so important to me. I've told my friends it makes me feel closer to Liam, which is true. It's also true that I want to finish the list for Liam since he can't, but if I asked his SEAL brothers, they'd do it in a heartbeat. But the real truth, the one I can only admit to myself, is I'm tired of living life in the shadows — afraid and cautious and always worried. I want to be like Liam. I want to feel alive and to experience everything in all of its technicolor brilliance. In a weird way, I feel like the bucket list is the last piece of advice I'm getting from my big brother, telling me life is short and I should stop being afraid of living. He's telling me it's my time to step out of the shadows and grab hold of every experience I can. To push the envelope and be bold and daring and fearless. He's even given me the blueprint for it.
"Maybe you should report it to the police," Charlotte suggests.
"And say what? I was at the wrong place at the wrong time and got caught in the middle of a firefight in the Costa Rican jungle? That sounds crazy. I'm not going back to Costa Rica anytime soon, but I'm fine! They weren't shooting at me. It was a fluke. A weird and scary one, but still, just a fluke."
Charlotte nods. "That's true. Why would anyone try to shoot you?" "Exactly," I say. "Now let's wrap up what we need to do for the wedding this weekend and get ready for Vegas! It's going to be a blast."
Excerpted from Rogue by Brynley Blake, Brenda Chin. Copyright © 2017 Brynley Blake. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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