Elle Vollman hadn't expected to live when the plane went down. She never thought she'd see her daughter again or give testimony against one of the world's worst human traffickers. But she learned never to say never because she never thought she'd see her ex-fiancé, Dr. Brody Donovan, again either. Now here he was, amongst the survivors, applying medical care to those in need. Lost in the Amazon and being hunted by more than just wildlife, it will take their combined strength to find help and rescue the others. The fierce jungle has doomed many, and trusting one another is the only way either of them will find their way back maybe even to each other .
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Brody Donovan moved in his seat, trying to discreetly stretch his long legs. The pretty young woman across the aisle smiled at him.
"Long flight, huh?" she said.
Long, late and the last twenty minutes, bumpy as hell. He glanced at his watch, judging the amount of time he'd have between connecting flights. "Yes," he said politely, and promptly closed his eyes.
He didn't want to engage in any conversation. He wanted solitude. For the next ten days, he planned to enjoy the quiet and forget about the bang of roadside bombs, the sting of metal fragments and the despair of the damaged bodies that he'd been patching up for years. He intended to forget about war and to pretend that everybody could just get along.
His destination of choice involved a little backtracking, but he was okay with that. A direct flight out of Miami into Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, then a smaller plane to take him an hour north to a place where the sand was white, the water blue and the rum cold.
He had a place to stay, courtesy of his friend Mack McCann. Payback, his friend had said for Brody's assistance in saving Hope Minnow's life. After hearing that Brody had a trip to South America in mind with no particular destination, Mack had been quick to call in a few favors and suddenly Brody had a beach house in Brazil waiting for him.
Peace. A brief interlude before the real world and its real-world responsibilities pressed down upon him. It wasn't as if he was dreading the next step. San Diego, with its three hundred days a year of sunshine and mild temperatures, wasn't something to bitch about. And he was joining one of the leading orthopedic practices in the country. It was just that
Well, it was just that with both of his good friends finding love, it was hard not to feel a little alone. In just a few weeks, they would both be married. Ethan to Chandler, Mack's younger sister. And Mack to Hope Minnow, who he'd been hired to protect and in the process, had lost his heart.
He should just be happy for both Ethan and Mack and stop the damn pity party. It wasn't his style. Marriage simply wasn't in the cards. He'd come close, but Elle Well, she'd walked away without a backward glance.
Those had been dark days. But he'd managed to go on even though some days he'd barely had the strength to get out of bed.
He would forget the bad stuff about war, too. Given enough time.
And plenty of rum.
Brody woke up when he felt the wheels touch down. The big plane taxied to a gate and the passengers shuffled restlessly, waiting for the doors to open. Once they did, it was straight to Customs. The fine folks there were moving at the pace of a comatose snail, and he checked his watch repeatedly. If he missed his next flight, it would mean a night in the airport.
Once past the Customs agent, he moved fast, looking for signs that would lead him in the right direction. Fortunately, everything was in both Spanish and English. He started running, being careful to dodge around the elderly and the very young. When he got to his gate, he wasn't surprised to see the waiting room was empty. There was a clerk behind the counter, fiddling with his computer. When the young, dark-skinned man saw him, he immediately glanced toward the big windows.
Brody followed his gaze. The small plane was still there, but they were starting to pull the temporary steps back. The propeller on the nose was turning.
The young man spoke into a microphone on his shirt collar. "One more," he said. Then he looked at Brody. "You just made it."
Brody held out his ticket and his passport. The young man hit a few keys. "Thank you, Se or Donovan. There are no assigned seats."
He knew that. It was a small chartered flight. The plane only held a max of eight.
"I'll hang on to the wing if I have to," he said. Warm sand, blue water and cold rum were a hell of an inducement.
The young man smiled. "I do not think that will be necessary." He opened a door and motioned for Brody to pass through. "Have a good trip," he said.
Brody moved quickly through the short hallway and took the steps down to the tarmac fast. He pushed open a big door and was outside. The air felt sticky even though there was a good breeze. It was darker than it should have been, given that it was still an hour shy of sundown.
Everything was gray. Gray cement. Gray plane. Gray sky.
He was pretty confident that the rain was not far off. That didn't worry him. In this part of the country, they had to be used to flying in it.
They didn't call it the rain forest for nothing.
He ran up the metal steps and ducked to enter the plane. Seated in the cockpit was a pilot, a man close to sixty with dark skin and still-thick dark hair, who didn't look up. The copilot, blond, blue-eyed and freckled, probably not yet twenty-five, reached back over his shoulder, grabbed Brody's ticket and then pointed a thumb to a seat in the empty front row. With the same arm, he pulled shut a curtain, separating the cockpit from the rest of the cabin.
Brody swung into the spot, silently celebrating his good luck, not caring that the pilot seemed a little irritated with his late arrival. In another hour, he'd be at his final destination. Mack had gone so far as to hire somebody to stock the house with groceries. All Brody had to do was show up.
The plane taxied out to a runway and within minutes was gathering speed. The nose of the plane lifted and suddenly they were airborne. The small aircraft rocked back and forth, causing Brody, who had been on some pretty rough flights during his years in the air force, to brace one hand on the wall and the other on the plastic armrest between his seat and the empty one next to it.
"I told you it would be bad," a woman said from somewhere behind him. "You never listen to me."
There was a response. From a man. Too low for Brody to distinguish the words.
"This is the dumbest thing we've ever done," she added, evidently not letting it go.
Brody wished he'd remembered earplugs. The plane continued to gain altitude. And the flight didn't get any smoother. He understood. Planes like this flew at lower altitudes where the air was denser and rougher. They probably wouldn't go much higher than three or four thousand feet.
He closed his eyes.
Fifteen minutes later, the plane started to really rock and roll. He opened his eyes just as a bolt of lightning split the darkening sky off to his left.
More lightning followed.
He leaned into the aisle and looked toward the front. The curtain separating the pilots from the rest of the plane had slid partially open, allowing him to see. The older pilot was gesturing to the young copilot, his hands moving fast. It appeared that nerves up front were stretched thin.
He hoped the woman in back didn't have a good view. The man with her would never hear the end of it.
It probably wouldn't do any good to tell her that lightning wasn't going to bring down a plane. Hadn't happened for more than forty years. The skin of a plane was hyper conductive, causing any electrical charges to skate along the exterior of the plane and then to discharge back into the atmosphere.
Nope. Probably wouldn't make her any happier to know that.
He closed his eyes again, hoping they got out of the storm soon. But his eyes opened fast when he felt the plane start to lose altitude. What the hell? They were descending fast. Way too fast.
The young copilot stumbled out of the front. His face was pale and he was sweating. "Captain Ramano says to prepare for a crash landing."
Elle Vollman wasn't prone to regrets, but when she realized the plane was going down, a few thoughts flashed through her terrified mind. Mia, sweet Mia. How could the little girl endure another loss? Elle had wanted so desperately to give her the life she deserved.
She would miss Father Taquero, too. He'd first become her friend, then her employer and, most recently, her confidant. Then he'd taken on his most important roleMia's protector.
And then, of course, there was her biggest regret. Brody Donovan. The only man she'd ever loved. She wished she'd had the chance to tell him. Not that he'd probably have been interested in listening. He had to hate her for what she'd done.
She leaned forward in her seat, crossed her arms in front of her, bent her head and prepared to die. Her ears were roaring, her head was pounding and when the plane skimmed the first tree, she heard branches crack and bust and then the scream of metal tearing. The plane tossed from side to side, then rolled and rolled again.
Something hit her in the head, right above her left eye. She felt her seat belt give and she pitched sideways. Blindly, she reached out and grabbed air. Suddenly the plane came to a bone-jarring stop. She fell forward, catching her shoulder on the seat across from her. She felt it give and a searing pain stab at her.
She lifted her head. She felt sick and disoriented, and where the hell was the emergency lighting that every airline promised in the event of emergency? It wasn't pitch-black but pretty dark. She couldn't see much of anything.
A horrifying thought struck her. Maybe she was blind. Maybe the knock on her head had taken her sight. She was seconds away from full-blown panic when she remembered that she had a flashlight in her backpack. Keeping her injured arm anchored to her side, she used her other to claw around on the floor, feeling her way, until finally her outstretched fingers snagged a backpack strap. She pulled the heavy bag toward her and unzipped it. She reached in, past the extra clothes and the books that she carried with her.
There it was. She pulled out the light, turned it on and very quickly realized that sight wasn't always a gift.
It was a gruesome scene. The inside of the plane had been torn apart and strips of metal and chunks of glass were everywhere. There was a gaping hole in the roof at the very rear of the plane, less than three feet behind where she'd been sitting.
The elderly woman across the aisle was leaning back in her seat, her eyes closed, and blood was running down her face. Her husband was still bent over, in the crash position, with a section from the roof of the plane, probably four feet long and at least a foot wide, pressing on his back.
They were holding hands. And the man's thumb was stroking the woman's palm and her index finger was gently tapping on his gnarled knuckle.
It was witnessing that small connection that gave Elle the strength to move forward. She was alive. Others were alive. All was not lost.
She fished inside her backpack again and pulled out her cell phone. She turned it on, knowing it was a long shot. Still, when there was no service, she experienced a sharp pang of disappointment. She dropped it back into her backpack.
It felt surreal. Like one of those dumb movies where the world has ended and there's only a few mopes to carry on.
Get a grip, she lectured herself. The world hadn't ended, and she wasn't the only one left alive. She'd been in a plane crash. Nothing more. Nothing less.
And she needed to figure out what to do next.
The elderly couple was likely injured, but before she assisted them, she needed to determine how the rest of the passengers had fared. She flashed her light into the seats directly ahead of her. There had been a woman there. She'd had her face buried in a thick book when Elle boarded.
She was still there, her arms wrapped around her middle, silently rocking back and forth. Her eyes were wide-open. Blank.
"Are you all right?" Elle asked.
The woman slowly nodded. She did not make eye contact with Elle.
"What's your name?" Elle asked.
"Pamela," she said, her voice a mere whisper.
"Okay, Pamela, I'm going to check on the pilots. I'll be right back." Elle flashed the light forward to the front of the plane. In the aisle was someone's overnight bag, several magazines and other papers, a coat and more pieces of the plane's interior wall.
Elle stepped over the debris. When she stopped to yank back the partially closed curtain that separated the cockpit from the cabin, Pamela almost rammed into her back.
Elle understood. The need for human contact, to know that she wasn't alone, was almost overwhelming.
Elle could see that the pilot was still in his seat, slumped over the controls. The copilot had been thrown out of his seat and was awkwardly sprawled in the small space between the two seats. He was moving, thank God, picking himself up. Half-up, he suddenly crumpled on his right side. Arms flailing, he grabbed for his chair and sank down. "Oh, damn, that hurts," he said, reaching for his lower leg.
His hand came away with blood and Elle thought she might be sick. She forced herself to step closer.
The man had pulled up his loose pants, and sticking out of his lower leg was the sharp, ugly end of a bone. There was blood. It wasn't spurting out, like when Father Taquero had cut his hand at the church a month ago, but to her inexperienced eye, there did seem to be a rather lot of it.
"Don't move," she said instinctively.
"Not much chance of that," he said, his jaw tight. He turned his pale face to the man at his side. "Captain Ramano." His voice was a plea.
The older man groaned but didn't push his body back or lift his head.
They were both alive but certainly hurt.
"Can you call for help?" Pamela asked, over her shoulder, evidently not caring about their injuries.
To his credit, the young copilot fiddled with several switches. "No power," he said, his young voice showing the strain. "There's no radio." He pulled a cell phone from his back pocket and pressed a couple keys. "No signal."
"That's okay," Elle said, attempting to stay calm.
"It's not okay," Pamela said, her voice too loud for the small space. "I smell fuel. We're going to blow up. We have to get out. Now!"
Elle turned. She spoke with the authority that had always successfully quieted a room of preteen girls. "We will. Now, you need to stay calm and help me. We have to help the others."
Pamela pressed her lips together. Then she whirled suddenly, her arm flailing to the side. "What about him?" she asked, pointing to the front row. "Can he help?"
Elle had forgotten about the man who had boarded late. She'd been writing in her journal and had looked up just as he swung his body into the seat. She'd caught a glimpse of broad shoulders in a pale green shirt.
She turned back to the young copilot and swallowed hard. "I am going to help you." She wasn't sure how, but she would do something. "But first, I need to see how badly the rest of the passengers are injured. Can you hang on?"
He nodded and closed his eyes.
Elle turned and stepped past Pamela, to the point where she could shine the light on the remaining passenger's seat. Because the man had been in the front row, there hadn't been any seat for him to use to brace himself. It appeared as if his belt had failed, as hers had, and he'd been pitched out of his seat onto the floor. He was under debris from the wall and ceiling. She could see an arm, a leg, a portion of his back.
She let the light rest there. He was breathing.