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. Her hands were shaking and a knot of fear had formed in her throat. Without the rumble of engines, the Twin Otter that had just dropped seven smoke jumpers on a raging inferno in Yellowstone National Park was eerily quiet.
She took a firmer grip on the control column as a way to keep herself—her emotions and her mind and her body—calm. The terrifying threat of plummeting into the fire, along with undeniable whiffs of choking black smoke in the cockpit, made it plain she didn’t have much time left to figure out a way to save herself and the single passenger left on the plane.
Taylor had just dropped the last jumper to fight the blaze that had been burning for the past two weeks, when a whirlwind of fire had engulfed the Otter. Without power, she’d been slowly, but steadily, losing altitude. She turned, with eyes she hoped didn’t reveal how frightened she was, to stare over her shoulder at the single smoke jumper remaining on the plane.
“You can still jump,” she said loud enough to be heard over the unnerving whisper of wind in the open doorway at the rear of the Otter.
“Not without you,” the jumper replied, pulling off his headset.
“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. She wasn’t a gambler by nature, and she didn’t like what she saw. Brian was wearing a yellow 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 scorching flames below and shivered.
“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 flat place, for that matter—where she might crash-land the plane. The only barren terrain she saw, in one of the most remote areas in the lower forty-eight, were steep mountain slopes leading straight down into the ferocious fire.
The spotter, who was required to be on all flights to gauge the wind, fire activity, and terrain, hadn’t shown up for this 9 p.m. flight, which took advantage of the long August daylight. So Brian, already dressed in smoke jumping gear, had doffed his Ram-air parachute and cage helmet in the corner of the plane, donned the spotter’s harness and helmet, and served as spotter instead. After the last smoke jumper had gone out the door, Brian had suggested that Taylor drop down to survey the fire perimeter, in order to send the latest information back to base.
It was a judgment call whether the risk was worth the reward. But this fire had been frighteningly unpredictable, and she understood Brian’s concern for the safety of his fellow smoke jumpers. It hadn’t been easy to see anything through the cloud of black smoke, so she’d slipped even lower—and been engulfed in a sudden tornado of flame, rising hundreds of feet from the 100-foot conifers below.
They’d been drifting downward ever since.
Brian met her gaze with worried eyes. “This plane’s headed straight into the fire,” he said from the open 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. Brian had dubbed her with it when he was a junior and she was a freshman at Jackson High.
Taylor felt her stomach shift when the plane jolted, as the right wingtip was abruptly shoved upward by a scorching gust of air. Time was running out. Her eyes were tearing from the smoke, and her chin was trembling, despite her clenched teeth. In a voice that was hoarse, but surprisingly composed, considering the desperation she felt inside, Taylor reported their position on the radio, along with the information she’d gleaned from their survey of the fire and 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.”
As Taylor surveyed the violent landscape, she figured it was going to take more than luck to survive. It was going to take a miracle. She didn’t see an area large enough to allow her to land without going in nose first. If the crash didn’t kill them, they would burn to death in the converging fire.
She knew her thoughts should be focused on wind currents and lift and drag. What consumed her instead was her greatest regret: What might my life be like now, if I hadn’t broken up with Brian Flynn in high school?
Taylor had memories of the few autumn months she’d secretly dated Brian that were hard to forget. Laughter. Loving. Sharing and bonding. He’d seemed almost as perceptive of her feelings as her fraternal twin, which was saying something, because her life and Vick’s had been wrapped, one around the other, like clinging vines.
It was easy to blame the tensions between their feuding families for driving them apart. Vick had been appalled when she discovered Taylor was dating one of “those awful Flynn boys” and demanded she stop seeing Brian. But ultimately, the decision had been hers. She was the one who’d given up on the possibility of loving and being loved. She was the one who’d walked away.
After college, Brian had become a firefighter and married someone else. She’d become a corporate jet pilot who flew CEOs to meetings around the country and found time during the summer to drop smoke jumpers from a twin-engine Otter. She’d been engaged three times, but she’d never married.
Since Brian’s divorce a year ago, they were both single. During that year she’d done nothing to engage his interest, nothing to reignite the secret romance-of-a-lifetime that had been snuffed out thirteen years ago, like a campfire you were done with.
She’d often thought about approaching Brian once she learned he was free. But she’d waited too late. Very likely, they were going to die in the next few minutes.
But if they lived through this . . .
She focused her gaze on the tall, broad-shouldered man who’d been forbidden fruit when she was a teenager.
“I’m not leaving without you,” Brian said from the doorway. “Get your beautiful ass over here!”
When their eyes met, 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 hope 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. She no longer believed in the myth of “happily ever after.” Her life was liable to end in an altogether more gruesome way.
“You should jump,” she said turning back to search through the thick black smoke for the grassy 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 shimmied again, and the wings tipped sideways.
“Let me go!” She reached back in an attempt to right the plane, but he pulled her inexorably toward the door, which was starting to tilt upward at an angle that might keep them both from escaping.
Taylor jerked free, her heart thundering in her chest, and grabbed the control column, bringing the plane back to level flight. Panting, breathless, her eyes locked with Brian’s, she said, “Just go! Someone has to keep the plane steady so you can get out the door.”
“I’m not going 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.”