Excerpt from Meltdown
She’d stumbled into a nightmare.
Zoe Wilkinson clutched the steering wheel of her rattling Honda, her fingers numb, her breath coming in labored gasps, and locked her gaze on the remote Nevada airstrip shimmering ahead in the desert haze. Her calm, orderly existence had exploded. The tranquility she’d sought her entire life had been torn into tattered shreds.
She jerked her gaze from the bumpy dirt road and braved a glance in her rear-view mirror. Dust billowed behind her speeding car, obscuring her view of the black sedan. But those killers were back there, following her. They’d broken into her apartment, chased her through the mountains outside of Ely, pursued her into the wide open desert where she couldn’t hide.
She sucked in a reedy breath and slammed the gas pedal flat to the floor. “Come on,” she pleaded to the car. “Go faster.” She had to make it to the tiny airstrip, beg a flight to the ghost town where her grandfather had hidden that flash drive.
Before both she and her grandfather died.
Raw hysteria burbled inside her. She tried to swallow, but her throat was dustier than the sand stretching to the horizon on every side. This shouldn’t be happening. She was a nuclear chemist. She’d led a staid, quiet life for years. She shouldn’t have the FBI monitoring her movements, rumors of espionage swirling around her, unknown assailants dogging her heels.
And her grandfather -- a world-renowned physicist -- kidnapped, possibly injured.
Terror slashed her belly at that dreadful thought, but she forced the fear aside. He couldn’t die. She wouldn’t let him. He was the only family she had left. And no way was he a traitor. He would never sell nuclear secrets to enemy agents. This was all a horrific mistake.
The car jolted into a rut, snapping her head back against the head rest, and she nearly lost control of the car. She clenched her teeth, tightened her fingers on the vibrating wheel, her biceps and shoulders aching from the battle to stay on the road. But she didn’t dare slow. Her pursuers had nearly caught up.
She squinted out the insect-splattered windshield at the airstrip a quarter mile away now -- its listing, sun-bleached flight shack, the two geriatric Cessnas parked on the dirt runway, the peeling Winnebago squatting amidst the sagebrush like a decaying bug.
She frantically scanned the airstrip for Pedro, the reclusive old pilot who owned the place, but didn’t see him around. But he had to be there. He had to fly her to that ghost town. He was her only hope.
Keeping the accelerator flattened to the floorboard, she hurtled the final few yards to the airstrip, sparing another glance behind her at the swarms of dust. Too panicked to slow, she yanked on the wheel, swerved toward the airstrip’s entrance.
But the car hit another rut, knocking her hands loose. She lunged for the wheel, but couldn’t regain control. The car careened through the sagebrush, smashed through the split rail fence. She shrieked, flinched, as the wooden rails crashed apart and bounced off the hood of her car.
Twisting hard on the wheel, she slammed on the brakes, her heart going berserk. The car fishtailed in the sand, flinging her against the door, then jerked to a stop in a spray of dust.
Shaking violently, she gasped for breath. Still panting, she pried her fingers off the steering wheel and pressed her hand to her aching head. But she’d worry about her bruises later. She had to get out of here fast.
She cut the engine, and the abrupt silence echoed in her ears. Moving quickly, she grabbed her knapsack from the passenger seat, shoved open her door, then stumbled out onto the sand. The dust drifted, began to settle. She tossed her blond braid over her shoulder, lifted her hand to shield her eyes from the blazing sun.
Tumbleweeds rolled past the trailer. Insects buzzed with a vengeance nearby. The windsock on the flight shack made a half-hearted flutter in the scorching breeze, but nothing else moved. There was no other sound. No sign of Pedro.
But the nearest plane had its cockpit door open, so he had to be around.
“Pedro?” she called out, starting toward the planes on the runway behind the flight shack. “Are you there?”
No one answered. She cast a worried glance at the road, spotted the dust cloud about two miles back.
“Pedro?” she called again, her anxiety rising. She whirled around, skimmed her gaze over the sagebrush and cactus flanking the trailer, the iron water pump jutting out of the sand.
Still nothing. The airstrip appeared deserted.
She sucked air to her strangled lungs, struggled to quell the panic ballooning inside. She couldn’t fail her grandfather. She’d already messed up so badly. She should have paid more attention to his erratic behavior, believed his claims earlier that someone was spying on him. Instead, she’d shrugged off his paranoid ramblings as the delusions of an aging man.
And now, as a result, he could die.
A movement in her peripheral vision caught her attention, and she whipped around. A man rushed toward her from the runway a short distance away -- but he was too tall, his hair too dark to be Pedro’s.
Her pulse sped up. Her hands trembling, she dug in her knapsack for her can of mace. The man rounded the flight shack, heading straight toward her, a greasy rag balled in his fist.
He lifted his head. His gaze collided with hers. He came to a sudden stop.
And her world tilted even more.
“Coop?” she whispered, a sudden wave of dizziness blurring her eyes. It couldn’t be him. Talk about a nightmare.
But she couldn’t mistake the man she’d once loved -- even after eight long years. His thick, blue-black hair gleamed in the sunshine. The faint shadow of black beard stubble darkened his bronzed jaw. Her gaze traced the jut of his noble nose, the slant of his high cheekbones -- evidence of an Apache ancestor in the family tree.
Cooper Kennedy. The man she’d adored. The man who’d dumped her. The man who’d haunted her dreams for years.
She closed her eyes, then snapped them open again -- but he wasn’t a mirage. Coop closed the distance between them, his big body bristling with anger, his stony gaze clamped on hers.
He was taller now, his shoulders broader under his navy blue t-shirt, more muscled than that last, dreadful time that they’d met. And his once-shaggy hair was shorter, thanks to his Naval Aviator career. Laugh lines creased the corners of his eyes.
He wasn’t laughing now.
Her gaze dropped to his mouth -- that wickedly sensual mouth that had launched her to paradise -- then back to his slate-gray eyes.
He looked less wild, more controlled.
Angry as hell.
And she absolutely did not need this. Her life had turned disastrous enough.
She stepped back, started to turn away to hunt for Pedro, but he intercepted the move and blocked her flight. “What the hell were you trying to do, kill yourself?” His deep voice trembled with fury. His flinty eyes bored into hers. “You almost hit the trailer.”
“I...” She shook her head, still dazed at his appearance, unwilling to take time to explain. She shot a glance at the road, caught sight of the black sedan speeding closer to the airstrip, and her stomach became a flurry of dread. “Where’s Pedro?”
“Gone?” She snapped her gaze back to Coop’s. “Gone where?”
“He’s on vacation.”
“Vacation?” She gaped at him, staggered by the thought. “But...that’s ridiculous. Impossible.” Pedro never left the desert. He rarely even ventured into nearby Big Rock -- population 53 -- unless he needed tequila or beans.
Coop folded his arms over his broad chest, his eyes turning colder yet. “He’s visiting a niece in Colorado.”
“Colorado.” She gave her head a quick shake, but it still didn’t make any sense. Pedro had never mentioned a niece, and he never left the airstrip. He’d flown her grandfather to that ghost town like clockwork every few weeks for years.
And why on earth was Coop here? He was supposed to be living his dream, flying a fighter jet somewhere. She’d never imagined he’d return to the same hard-scrabble patch of sand he’d spent his life trying to escape.
But none of that mattered with her life at stake. She flicked her gaze back to the road, and a fresh jolt of anxiety clawed through her nerves. The sedan was less than a mile away now. She had to go.
She met Coop’s unyielding eyes, struggling to keep the strain from her voice. “Look, I need a ride. Right now. To Crater Canyon.”
“The planes are grounded.”
“They can’t be.” Her voice rose. “I need a flight.”
“Tough.” He turned, strode in the direction of the trailer, and her desperation surged. He had to help her. She couldn’t drive to the ghost town -- she’d never outrun that sedan.
“Coop, wait,” she called to his retreating back. “Please. You have to help me.”
He stopped, slowly pivoted to face her, his eyes so furious that she took a step back. “Help you? After what you did to me?”
“What I did?” What was he talking about? He was the one who’d rejected her. He’d told her grandfather he couldn’t marry her because of the rumors about her parents, the suspicions that they had been spies. He’d feared the unproven accusations could jeopardize his security clearance and taint his budding Naval career.
Which was ironic given his father’s disreputable past.
She blocked off the familiar jab of hurt. She didn’t care about the past. She didn’t even care about the heartbreak he’d caused. None of that mattered. She had to save her grandfather -- and to do that, she needed Coop’s help.
“I’ll pay double,” she said. “Whatever you want.”
“I said to forget it.” He turned on his heel and stalked off.
“But that car...those men.” Her desperation swelled. She had to convince him. “Coop, please. They’re chasing me. They’re going to kill me. I need your help.”
The roar of the approaching car stopped her, and she spun back to the road. The sedan was just hundreds of yards away now, flinging up dust, rocketing toward the airstrip at breakneck speed.
She’d just run out of time.
Panicked, she whirled back to Coop, shifted from foot to foot. He’d paused halfway to the trailer and stood with his hands braced low on his hips, scowling at the oncoming car -- but she couldn’t take time to explain. He probably wouldn’t believe her if she tried. No one else had -- not the police, not the FBI, not her boss at the Madera Mountain nuclear lab where both she and her grandfather worked. Instead, they’d begun investigating her.
Unable to wait another second, she rushed past the flight shack to the nearest Cessna and peered through the open door. The key was in the ignition.
Should she try to fly it? She wasn’t a pilot, but Coop had given her lessons that summer they’d spent together, and she’d watched him fly dozens of times.
Her gaze sliced back to the sedan zooming toward them, throwing up blankets of dust. And a terrible sense of certainty settled inside her. She had no choice. If she didn’t leave now, she would die.
She tossed her knapsack into the cockpit, climbed up, and slammed the door. If she could just get off the ground without crashing, make it far enough away to escape those men...
“Hey,” Coop yelled, loping back toward her. “What are you doing?”
Saving her life, she hoped.
Running on adrenaline, she reached down to check the fuel switch, wracking her memory for what to do. She flipped on the master switch, pumped the primer with trembling hands, pushed in the red fuel mixture knob.
Then she turned the key to engage the propeller, and the old plane rumbled to life. Hardly breathing, she sent a nervous glance through the windshield, then blanched.
Coop reached the plane, his eyes thunderous. The black sedan veered closer to the airstrip, and her heart jack hammered into her throat. Ignoring Coop, she shoved in the throttle, started the plane rolling down the dirt runway while she grabbed hold of the yoke.
A sudden burst of gunfire made her heart stall. She swiveled around and looked out the passenger-side window. The sedan’s tinted window was down, a lethal looking rifle aimed at the plane.
More gunfire tatted out. She ducked, her pulse maniacal, heard the staccato barks of an answering gun.
Was that Coop? Was he armed? She hoped so; no matter how painful their history, she didn’t want him to get hurt.
Crazed with fear, she forced herself upright. She frantically worked the pedals to steer, trying like mad to speed up. She had to get airborne. She’d never outrun that car on the ground.
But then the cockpit door jerked opened. She gasped, but it was only Coop. He clung to the door behind the struts as they bumped down the runway, a pistol in his right hand.
“Move over,” he shouted.
Relief flooded through her. He was going to help her. She let go of the yoke, scrambled into the passenger seat as he swung himself into the plane.
“Keep us covered.” He closed the door, thrust his gun at her.
“But I don’t--”
“The safety’s off. Just point it out the window and shoot.”
She took hold of the pistol, which was heavier than she expected. Cradling it as carefully as lit dynamite, she twisted around, pushed open the window, then gripped the gun with both hands. The sedan swerved across the runway behind them, its front tires flat, rubber flapping as it sped through the dirt on its rims.
But two gunmen now hung out the passenger windows, their faces covered with hoods, their weapons trained on the plane.
She angled the pistol out the window, pointed at the car. The plane vibrated, making her arms shake, and she knew it was futile to aim. The best she could hope for was to pin them down -- and try not to hit the plane.
She gritted her teeth and squeezed the trigger, then jumped at the ear-splitting bang. Her hands flew up from the recoil. A spent cartridge shot from the gun. She steadied the gun, inhaled the harsh, sulfuric smell of gunfire, and pulled the trigger again. The men dove back inside the car.
The plane accelerated. The Cessna’s engine roared. “Strap in,” Coop shouted.
Zoe set the gun between the seats and tugged on her harness, but then a rapid series of tats reached her ears. She glanced out her window, shocked to see holes appear in the wing.
“They hit us.” Horrified, she swung around to face Coop. “They shot the plane.”
He grunted, his gaze on the instrument panel.
“Can we can still fly?”
“We’ll find out.” He adjusted the knobs, increased the plane’s speed even more.
She gnawed her cheek, watched his forehead wrinkle in concentration as he calmly worked the controls. And she realized with a start that he was used to this. He flew under enemy fire, risked his life all the time.
He pulled back on the yoke, easing the Cessna’s nose up, and the plane lifted away from the ground.
She held her breath. Every muscle in her body tensed. The plane chugged, strained, slowly gained altitude. She gripped her seat, her fingernails gouging the cushion, her gaze glued on the desert sand.
Had the bullets hit something vital? Would the plane crash or explode in the air?
But long seconds passed and the plane stayed airborne. The desert floor slowly retreated. The propeller continued to spin.
She peeked out the side window. The sedan had stopped at the end of the runway. Three men stood beside it, black hoods covering their heads, their deadly weapons growing smaller as the plane soared into the sky.
Shuddering, she closed the window, then turned back to face Coop. They’d made it. They were safe -- at least for now.
Assuming the plane stayed in the air.
“What do you think?” she asked. “Is the plane all right?”
“I don’t know.” He glanced at the damaged wing, then at the instrument panel again.
Her mind still reeling, her body trembling from the surge of adrenaline, she watched him work the controls.
Thank goodness he’d helped her. She never would have escaped those men alone.
But she still couldn’t believe he was here. She shook her head, astounded at the thought. But there he sat like a vision from her painful past, like some bizarre sort of déjà vu.
Her gaze drifted over the rugged lines of his face, the hollows of his dusky cheeks. His biceps bulged under the sleeves of his t-shirt. His shoulders rippled with strength. She eyed the powerful line of his neck, his flat, sexy stomach, the intriguing worn spots on his faded jeans.
A wayward thrill ran through her. He was still the most arresting man she’d ever seen. And he slouched in his seat in a posture so familiar it made her throat ache -- his jean clad legs sprawled wide, his booted feet working the pedals, his tough, sinewed hands managing the yoke with expert skill.
He turned his head, as if sensing her watching, trapping her with his gunmetal eyes. And his sexual appeal slammed though her, jumbling her stomach even more.
She’d never met another man like him. No one had ever affected her so intensely. No one had even come close.
“You all right?” His deep voice rumbled through her nerves.
Hardly. Her grandfather had been kidnapped. Gunmen were trying to kill her. Their plane could crash at any time.
And now she was flying through the desert with Coop, the man who’d demolished her heart.
But she managed to nod. “I’m fine.”
Coop’s gaze didn’t waver. Instead, he narrowed one flinty eye at her, as if sighting down the barrel of his gun -- reminding her that that even though he’d helped her, he wasn’t exactly her friend.
He would demand an explanation -- and rightfully so. But how much should she say? Would he believe her if she told him the truth? None of the authorities had.
But what choice did she have? She had to convince him to help her. She only had thirty-six hours to pay that ransom. A delay could cost her grandfather his life.
She snuck another glance at Coop. The sharp intelligence in his eyes scrambled her pulse.
She’d managed to escape the assassins.
But she had the feeling her problems had just begun.
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Copyright 2009 by Gail Ellen Barrett. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.