Excerpt from the “King’s Brats” series
Does your life really flash before your eyes when you know you’re going to die? Taylor Grayhawk was a great pilot, but there was nothing she could do with both engines flared out. A whirlwind of fire had engulfed her Twin Otter as she flew over Yellowstone National Park dropping smoke jumpers to fight the raging inferno that had been burning for the past two weeks. She turned to stare over her shoulder at the single smoke jumper who hadn’t made it out of the plane.
“You can still jump,” she said over the eerie rustle of the wind in the open doorway at the rear of the plane.
“Not without you,” the jumper called back.
“I don’t have a parachute.”
“We can share mine.”
Taylor calculated the odds of getting to the ground hanging on to Brian Flynn by her fingernails—and whatever other body parts she could wrap around him. He was wearing a padded jump jacket and pants made of Kevlar, the same material used for bulletproof vests. It was bulky, to say the least. She imagined herself falling—sliding down his body—into the flames below and shuddered.
“I’ll take my chances on getting the plane to the ground in one piece,” she said, turning back to the control panel to see how much lift she could manage without the engines. Not much. She searched in vain for a meadow—any opening in the trees—where she might crash-land the plane.
The spotter, who was required on all flights to gauge the wind, fire activity, and terrain, hadn’t shown up, so Brian, already dressed in smoke jumping gear, had served as the spotter instead. Unfortunately, he hadn’t been able to steer her away from what turned out to be a catastrophic encounter with fire. Taylor doubted anyone could have anticipated the sudden tornado of flame that had shot up hundreds of feet into the air from the forest
“This plane’s headed straight into the fire,” Brian said from the doorway. “We need to jump now, while there’s still time to hit a safe clearing. Get over here, Tag. Move your butt!”
The use of her nickname, which came from her initials—Taylor Ann Grayhawk—conjured powerful, painful memories from the past. Brian had dubbed her with it when he was a junior and she was a freshman at Jackson High.
Taylor felt the plane shudder as the right wingtip was abruptly shoved upward by a gust of hot air and knew that time was running out. In a voice that was surprisingly calm, considering the desperation she felt inside, Taylor reported their position on the radio, along with the fact that she’d been unable to restart the engines.
“I’m putting us down in the first clearing I find,” she told the dispatcher.
“Roger,” the dispatcher replied. “Good luck.”
The problem was she didn’t see a clearing large enough to allow her to land without going in nose first. Survival was questionable. Disaster seemed imminent.
Two words kept replaying in her mind: “What if . . .?”
What if their fathers, King Grayhawk and Angus Flynn, hadn’t been mortal enemies? What if Brian’s elder brother, Aiden, hadn’t caught Brian making love to her after the junior prom? What if her fraternal twin sister, Victoria, hadn’t made it clear that if Taylor didn’t stay away from Brian, who was just one more of “those awful Flynn boys,” she was never speaking to her again?
Brian had become a firefighter and married someone else. She’d become a corporate pilot and gone through several futile engagements. They were both free now, but Brian’s divorce a year ago had left him so heart sore and gun shy that he was likely never to fall in love again.
None of that mattered now. Very likely she and Brian were going to die in the next few minutes. What made her heart ache was regret for what her life might have been like if only . . .
She looked over her shoulder at the tall, broad-shouldered man who’d been forbidden fruit when she was a teenager. She’d run her fingers through his thick black hair, holding on tight as they made love. His piercing blue eyes had seen past her movie-star-beautiful, confident, blond-haired, blue-eyed exterior to the abandoned child inside, who desperately wanted to be loved.
She’d grown up with an older sister as a mother, after her own mother had run off with one of her father’s cowhands. Her wealthy father had been mostly absent, serving two terms as Wyoming governor in Cheyenne, while he left his four daughters back home at his ranch in Jackson Hole.
Because of the animosity between their families, she’d started out determined to seduce Brian Flynn—and dump him. It would be fair repayment for all the nasty things he and his three brothers had done to her and her three sisters. His heart was supposed to end up broken, not hers. She hadn’t planned on liking him. Brian was the first boy to offer affection in return for the sex she’d been offering to any boy who gave her a kind look—and some whose looks weren’t so kind—hoping to find someone who would care about her.
“I’m not leaving without you, Tag,” Brian said. “Get out of that seat and get your beautiful ass over here!”
Their eyes met, and she felt the past flooding back. All the things she should have done . . . and hadn’t. All the things she shouldn’t have done . . . and had.
The thought of a future with Brian almost had her rising. But there was too much water under the bridge. Or water over the dam. She’d been disappointed too many times by too many men. Some people were lovable, and some were not. She was just one of those people who wasn’t destined to find a man who could love her. Brian Flynn had had his chance. She no longer believed in the possibility of any kind of happily ever after. Her life was liable to end in an altogether more gruesome way.
“You go,” she said turning back to search through the windshield for the clearing she knew had to be there somewhere.
A moment later she felt a strong hand grip her arm, yanking her out of her seat.
“I am not, by God, going to take the blame for leaving you behind, you stubborn brat!”
The plane shuddered, and the wings tipped sideways.
“Let me go!” she cried, reaching back to the control column in an attempt to right the plane. But he pulled her inexorably toward the door, which was already tilting upward in an angle that might keep them both from escaping.
Taylor jerked free and rushed back to her seat, grabbing the control column and bringing the plane back to level flight. She glanced over her shoulder and said, “Just go, Brian! Someone has to keep the plane steady so you can get out the door.”
“I’m not going anywhere without you, Tag. Get that into your head. So you can either join me in getting out of this plane, or we can both go down with it in flames.”