Phyl's latest book, Free Fall, is available now as an ebook!
It seemed like only yesterday that Jennifer's boss repeated, "You're going to drive an airplane down the highway and park it in the middle of the mall?" As a matter of fact, it had been only yesterday.
Jennifer Gray stood on the tarmac of the small airport nestled in the sheltered bowl of California's San Joaquin Valley and fumed. She had less than an hour to get the plane she wanted into its slot at the Lido Lane Shopping Center for her sports promotion, and fog--with its chilling blasts of air--swirled like wet smoke across the pavement.
She hated airports. And, worse, airplanes. The Wright Brothers, as far as she was concerned, should have stayed on the ground and done something useful, like opening a fast food chain, something people needed back then.
Her knees met through the heavy fabric of her jeans, her toes curled in her short leather boots, and her hands burrowed deep in the pockets of her Irish knit sweater, the collar pulled up to just below the cold tip of her nose.
The fog, unusually heavy for June, had already obliterated everything--the hangars and planes had disappeared. It looked like a set from that old movie Casablanca and it didn't take much to imagine Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman stepping out of the fog, the darkness, and each others' lives.
A sound, reminiscent of the one made by her former vehicle, a finicky VW bug, shattered the air. Definitely a motor of some sort. She listened intently while it sputtered, then died completely, only to cough into life again. That was the thing about motors: they had a nasty habit of conking out. And although she had promised herself before--any number of times--she renewed her vow never to be lured into anything that used its motor to leave the ground.
The noise of the engine increased, and the nose of a small plane poked through the mist. That was the reason she had flunked Fear of Flying School. For a moment the pilot seemed intent on taxiing right up onto her toes, but then it stopped moving and the engine died.
The permit, folded deep in her purse, stated "Cessna 150" and why she had ever expected it to be no larger than a sports car, she couldn't imagine. She had asked the gentleman on the phone for a very small airplane, and he had promised her one that carried only two people. So why then did this machine appear to be the size of a locomotive?
"Ken?" She peered into the darkness and mist but couldn't see anyone. Ken McGrath, maintenance manager of the shopping center, where the plane had to fit on the mall, had driven her there in his car and apparently wandered off somewhere. Maybe into one of the hangars to keep warm.
"No, the name's Colin Thomas." The voice had a beautifully deep timbre to it. Darkness not withstanding, she then saw the man who belonged to it. Although his tanned face seemed at least ten inches above her own, she saw closely-cropped black curly hair, straight white teeth, broad shoulders and trim hips neatly wrapped up in a blue jumpsuit. Also, finely chiseled features, giving him an aristocratic appearance, which seemed somehow out of place on someone she assumed to be an airport mechanic. He was definitely not Ken McGrath. Or even Humphrey Bogart. But whoever this Colin Thomas was, he had no right to make her feel suddenly warm all over, in spite of the frigid air.
"Well, hello..." he drawled. Before she could answer, he thrust his hand forward and caught hers, squeezing it firmly in a large, warm grip. His eyes, startlingly blue under thick dark lashes, widened.
Both his touch and his look made electric currents sizzle somewhere inside her. Seconds seemed to turn into hours. As much as she enjoyed the sensation, to say nothing of the approving looks the man gave her, she pulled her hand from his and kept her gaze on the abstract patch over the left breast pocket of his jumpsuit instead of his face.
He wasn't Ken--he was probably a mechanic who worked at the field--but perhaps he could shed some light on Ken's whereabouts.
"Have you seen a tall man," she asked, "fifty-ish, wearing a brown parka? His name's Ken McGrath."
"Was he driving a green minivan?" He looked off in the direction of what could have been the parking lot.
"Yes." Maybe he was waiting for her in the car.
"What?" She looked about, as if it were possible to see more than ten feet in front of her. "He can't be gone. He has to drive me back to the Lido Lane Shopping Center."
"Brown coat? Green van?" The deep even tone had become unnervingly calm. "Guy took off five minutes ago."
"Oooh." Jennifer gritted her teeth. "What about a man named Whitey Franklin?"
She could tell by the man's expression that the news was all bad and she didn't need his, "Gone, too, they drove off together," to start an initial stage of panic. And why did Colin Thomas have to flash that drop-dead smile every time he said something she didn't want to hear?
"If you need a lift, I'll be glad to give you one."
"You will?" His offer might possibly save her job and she considered dashing up and hugging him, but he began retreating toward the hazy outline of the Cessna. She followed, quickly, not to let him out of her sight. Two men had already disappeared on her.
When she reached the plane, he was standing beside one of the little doors and opened it for her.
"Hop in," he said. Then he skirted the nose, went around to the other side, and slid into the pilot's seat.
Oh, no, he was not getting her into anything with wings. And he wasn't just a mechanic. He was obviously a pilot as well. "That's a plane."
"You noticed." He leaned across the seat. "I'm going to the center, and there's room for two."
"Excuse me, but I can't do that. I--" How could she tell this man about her phobia? She hated to admit it even to herself.
"I ... um ... have this thing about heights."
Jennifer nodded. "You see, I'm afraid of them. It. Whatever." Oops. Usually she never admitted her phobia, but somehow this man made her tongue loosen as if it had a mind of its own.
His laugh came out deep and throaty. "The plane isn't going to leave the ground!" He sobered immediately. "Don't be embarrassed. You have lots of company. Still, I find it hard to reconcile that with your arranging for our Cessna."
"If it weren't for this mall promotion, I'd have nothing to do with an airplane, but..."
He reached across the empty seat and, before she could utter another sound, captured her elbow in one of his large, strong hands and coaxed her part way inside.
She was about to tell him she would rather call a cab, when she caught sight of her watch face. She should have been at the shopping center fifteen minutes ago. Now, now she had reason to panic.
"Come on," he said, "it will be something to tell your grandchildren about some day."
She could hear him laughing softly as he leaned away from the empty seat, and--not because of his jibe, but because it had taken her two years after college to even break into public relations and two more to land the spot with Piedmont Productions--she made herself ease her hips through the open doorway and sit beside him. Seemingly of their own volition, her hands found the edge of the seat and closed tightly, like a hungry Venus Flytrap, around the smooth leather. As much as she had enjoyed looking at that handsome face before, she gazed straight ahead, toward at least a hundred menacing little dials and knobs on the dashboard. Or whatever they called that in an airplane.
His arm crossed in front of her and he pulled the door beside her closed. "If you're still afraid, you can fasten your seat belt, even though the police escort won't allow us to drive over five miles an hour."
The words penetrated her fear. Of course. She herself had arranged for two motorcycles in front and two behind to see that no one accidentally crashed into the plane while it made its trip up a highway instead of a runway.
All the same, she reached eagerly for the belt and pulled it into position across her hips. Surprisingly, the simple act calmed her fears somewhat. Really, she told herself, it was going to be just like riding in a car.
Then her pilot did something incomprehensible to the controls and the engine leapt into life again. Right away, the notion of riding in a car flew out the window and she felt a pulsing beat begin deep in the pit of her stomach, as if a little man in high-heeled boots were in there dancing a mad fandango.
"Mr. Thomas," she said, suddenly feeling the need for more air, "is there..." I mean, it seems rather close in here." She took several quick, shallow breaths.
Without taking his eyes from the instruments, he fished around behind the seat. "Call me Colin, please," he said, and handed her a used paper bag that, from the smell of it, had once held a tuna fish sandwich.
"What's this for?"
"If you're going to hyper-ventilate, breathing into a paper bag can help."
The thought of breathing tuna fish fumes made her want to laugh and she realized she was getting her lungs under control already. Then two motorcycle drivers pulled up alongside the plane and Colin maneuvered the craft into position behind them.
They were moving, and instead of feeling worse, she actually felt calmer. Was it because of her job--knowing she was responsible for bringing the plane to the mall--or was it Colin Thomas? He sat erect, the top of his head almost brushing the ceiling of the plane, his firm jaw tilted slightly upward. No doubt about it, strength and determination emanated from him. He was probably one of those unflappable types, spreading comfort and security around like a warm blanket. A tingling sensation began in her midriff. She dropped the bag back behind the seat.
She looked out the front window of the plane and saw the red lights of the two motorcycles blinking in the darkness. Colin moved the Cessna forward and they quickly left the confines of the airport and turned into the street that fronted Skyway Aviation. From there they would taxi up the frontage road and then cross the highway on an overpass, turn right and drive into the shopping center parking lot.
Nothing to it, she had once, in her naivete, thought. Now she worried about all the things that could happen on this three-mile jaunt. What if some sleepy-eyed motorist saw this apparition and panicked, crashing into them? Oh, the folly of attempting something you knew nothing about.
"What did you say your name was?" Colin turned his head briefly in her direction. She liked his profile too.
"Jennifer Gray, of Piedmont Productions."
"Pretty name. May I call you Jennifer?" Then, without waiting for an answer, he said, "Are you in charge of the promotion at Lido Lane?"
She nodded. "Yes."
"Whose idea was it to put a plane on the mall?"
"Mine, believe it or not." It had been her idea exclusively to feature a real airplane in the sports promotion for the shopping center. As if that were not enough to boggle anyone's mind, she had also insisted in a moment, not so much of weakness as insanity, upon being the one to supervise its progress to the mall.
"Since it's a four-day sports promotion," she said, "I thought a small plane would fit in with the exhibits. As you may have guessed, I don't fly in them myself, but I know other people like to. You, for instance."
"Yep." He gave a John Wayne drawl to the word.
The popular notion of pilots, at least from what Jennifer had heard, was that they were either arrogant and conceited or confirmed daredevils, and she wondered if this one would fit into either of those categories. But were they all this gorgeous?
"I suppose anything on the ground must seem too tame for you. Except maybe racing sports cars. Do you, by any chance, do that when you're not flying?"
"No, I jump out of airplanes. I'm a skydiver."
Jennifer's stomach heaved at the very thought of it. If flying in airplanes was too frightening for her to attempt, then jumping out of them, even with a parachute, could take a Nobel Prize for folly.
"That's even worse," she managed to say.
He didn't take offense. "To someone with a fear of heights, I suppose it would seem that way." His voice had none of the condescension she often encountered when people knew of her fear, and it surprised her. For a mechanic--or pilot or skydiver or whatever he was--he showed an unexpected compassion.
"Do you work for Whitey Franklin?" she asked then.
"No, in fact, he works for me. I own Skyway Aviation."
Another surprise. The morning was certainly bringing its share of revelations.
"Usually," he went on, "I teach flying. Whitey runs the office for me most of the time and I just sign checks when he puts them under my nose." He paused only a moment before continuing. "But I'd rather talk about you. How did an attractive young woman who's afraid just to taxi in a plane get mixed up in a sports promotion?"
Jennifer shrugged. "In public relations one never reasons why. Believe me, it could be a lot worse."
"Like a contest to push peanuts up a hill with your nose?" He glanced sideways at her and Jennifer saw a glint of mischief in his blue eyes.
"It's been done. Along with roller skating from coast to coast, backwards."
He laughed and the pleasant sound of it momentarily filled the tiny cockpit. She glanced out the window and noticed that the fog had evaporated and the sky had brightened above the distant hills.
As if he read her thoughts, he said, "The fog's burning off already. It's going to be a sunny day."
"I know the summer heat will soon settle into the valley and I love this part of California, but why are the mornings so cold?"
He grinned. "I'll bet you're from Los Angeles."
"I grew up there," she said. "But I don't miss the overcrowding of a big city, or the freeway drivers."
She also made more money there in public relations, but didn't tell him that. She liked the open spaces of the valley, the farms and more identifiable seasons.
"Besides," she said, "if I ever feel the need, a four-hour drive will take me either to Los Angeles or San Francisco."
He didn't reply and she discovered with surprise that the overpass was already in view. Skillfully Colin turned the plane onto the small bridge and applied extra power for the slight incline. Then they were down the other side and turned into the parking lot of the shopping center.
A flashbulb popped nearby. That would be the photographer she had hired, hoping to gain some free publicity for the event in the local newspapers.
Colin brought the Cessna to a stop and cut the engine. As Jennifer unfastened her seat belt, he climbed out of the plane, came around to her side and opened the door. Before she could slide the short distance to the ground, he put his hands on her waist and lifted her out.
"Here you are, safe and sound," he said. "You should congratulate yourself on what you just did. Okay, the plane didn't take off, but you were able to sit in it for almost thirty minutes without having a heart attack."
He was not only right, but his touch and his fabulous smile made her heart do crazy loops and she couldn't speak.
A man approached and greeted Colin. Then he turned toward Jennifer. "Hi, I'm Whitey Franklin."
She hadn't met Whitey before but had spoken to him on the telephone when she made the arrangements for the airplane. She shook his outstretched hand.
"Jennifer Gray. I see where you get your nickname."
The man grinned, running a hand through his thick white hair. He looked to be in his sixties, small and wiry.
"Have you spoken to Ken McGrath?" They were running behind schedule and Jennifer felt a moment's anxiety. "He knows where I want the plane situated."
Whitey nodded. "We'll bring it onto the mall now."
He left quickly and she turned to Colin. "Thanks again for bringing the plane. If I ever get over my fear of flying, well--" She reached out and briefly shook his hand, conscious of its delicious pressure against hers. "--I'll look you up."
Her words repeated themselves in her head. She would never look him up, and, suddenly the thought of never seeing him again brought a stabbing pain to her chest. He was the first man in a long, long time who excited her. Why did he have to be so different? Why did opposites attract when no good could possibly come of it?