Chapter 1 ~ Crash and Burn

RLCrashandBurnBookCover5x8_MEDIUMIsabel Delgado took one look at the silver-paneled airplane in front of her and shook her head. Nope. No friggin’ way. Her fingers tightened around the red nylon leash in her right hand. Somehow, when she’d decided to accompany Maya the Husky on her freedom flight from the Orange County Animal Shelter to the rescue awaiting her in Oregon, she’d failed to take into consideration the size—or lack thereof—of the plane they’d be flying on.

“Ms. Delgado?”

Isa gulped a breath and focused on the man who’d just stepped out of the tiny plane. He watched her through mirrored sunglasses, his expression intense. A black T-shirt was stretched across his muscular chest, well-worn jeans hugged his narrow hips, and well, now her heart was pounding for an entirely different reason. When Silicon Valley CEO Nathaniel Peters had offered to fly them on the first leg of their journey, she hadn’t expected him to be so young…or hot.

“You can call me Isa,” she said, extending a hand.

“Nate.” He took her hand and gave it a quick, firm shake. “And this must be Maya.”

Isa glanced down at the dog. Maya stood, blue eyes alert, muscles tensed, ready to bolt at the slightest provocation. There was a reason the shelter workers called her Houdini, the same reason Isa was accompanying her on her rescue flight with Pilots for Pets instead of just handing her over to Nate: Maya was a serious flight risk.

“Ready?” Nate asked.

Isa looked again at the little silver plane behind him. Her palms dampened, and a sick feeling gripped the pit of her stomach. “Ah—how safe is that plane?”

“The Cirrus SR22 is one of the safest personal aircraft out there,” Nate said, his deep voice betraying a hint of annoyance.

“And you’ve been flying awhile?”

“Fifteen years.” He turned toward the plane. “We’d better get a move on.”

“Okay,” she answered, but her voice had drifted away to nothing, and her feet refused to budge.

“Is there a problem?”

She cleared her throat. “I wasn’t expecting it to be so…small.”

“Look, if you’re having second thoughts, I can take the dog myself.”

Isa’s fingers tightened around the leash. Undoubtedly, this wasn’t the best way to overcome her fear of flying, but if she got the promotion she’d just applied for at work, she’d have to fly all over the country to visit client sites, and besides, Maya really did need an escort. Isa had been visiting and walking her at the shelter for months. Maya trusted her.

“No, I’m coming.” She lifted her overnight bag from the tarmac and walked toward Nate and his plane. Maya, whether sensing Isa’s fear or acting on her own misgivings, wrenched her head, attempting to slip out of her collar and make a run for it. Isa stepped backward to keep slack on the leash, preventing the dog from escaping. “Not on my watch,” she told Maya. “Come on. You’re going to love Oregon when we get there. Lots of snow. Maybe your new family will even get you a little sled to pull.”

Nate gestured toward the plane. “You’ll ride beside me. She can have the backseat.”

Isa walked around to the passenger door, which was directly above the plane’s shiny silver wing. “How do I get in?”

“Just step right onto the mat,” Nate said, indicating a black mat laid across the wing. “Need a hand?”

“No, thanks.” She patted the mat, and Maya hopped up. Once the dog had climbed inside the plane, Isa followed her, gawking as she settled into her seat. It was almost like the interior of a fancy car—two plush leather seats in front and three in the back. The glaring difference was the huge instrument panel in front of her.

Nate swung her door shut and latched it, then walked around the plane. He stowed their bags behind the rear seat and climbed in beside her. “Nervous flier?”

She loosened her white-knuckled grip on the armrests. “Terrified, to be perfectly honest, but I promised myself I was going to overcome my fear of flying today, and once I decide to do something, there’s no going back.”

He nodded. “Just so you know, this is going to feel a lot different from a commercial flight. The Cirrus moves with every gust of wind.”

Sweat prickled under Isa’s arms. “Okay.”

“We’ll be flying over the Sierra Nevadas today. Should be a pretty ride,” Nate commented as he began messing with the controls in front of him. “It’s going to be loud in here once I start the engine. You can go ahead and put on the headset in front of you.”

She reached forward and put on the headset as the engine roared to life. Her heart was whirling as fast as the propeller in front of them. Nate spoke to air traffic control as the rumble of the propeller grew louder. Its blades blurred before her eyes.

From the backseat, Maya whined. Isa twisted around to check on her, stroking behind her ears the way Maya preferred. Rubbing the dog seemed to have a calming effect on both of them, so Isa concentrated on Maya, petting and comforting her as the plane began to roll forward. And then…they were hurtling down the runway.

Isa leaned back in her seat and squeezed her eyes shut. She felt the moment when they left the asphalt. The jostling bump of the wheels ceased, and her stomach performed a barrel roll as they soared upward. The sensation was dizzying and disorienting.

“Great view of the coast if you want to open your eyes,” Nate commented a minute or so later, his voice coming in loud and clear through the headset she wore.

Isa forced herself to peek, and whoa, they were high up. And yeah, the glittering California coastline below was absolutely stunning. But they were so high up…

“Should take us about three hours to reach Reno,” Nate said.

She nodded, gulping for air. Her arms had started to tingle, and she couldn’t stop the dizzying flop of her stomach, like she’d swallowed a live fish and it was flailing around inside her, trying to escape. Maya, on the contrary, had settled down on the backseat, head between her front paws, as if she flew all the time.

No big deal.

Right. Isa sucked in another breath, willing herself to calm down. The plane climbed, banked right, and climbed some more. From time to time, Nate commented on the weather or the terrain beneath them, but she was too scared to look. After a half hour or so, though, she had relaxed enough that she was able to speak without fear of losing her lunch.

“So you do this for fun, huh?” She looked at Nate.

He still wore his mirrored shades, hiding the color of his eyes. His hair was a rich espresso brown, his skin tanned as though he spent plenty of time outdoors. “Started flying when I was eighteen. Love the adrenaline rush, the freedom. I spend sixty to eighty hours a week in the office. This is my escape.”

She risked a glance at the mountainous landscape below and immediately wished she hadn’t. The plane seemed to catch a dip in the air, or maybe it was just Isa’s stomach lurching as she took in the craggy peaks beneath them. “I prefer the beach.”

“Probably more dangerous than flying, all things considered,” he said. “Sharks, rip currents…”

“I never said I went in the water.” Actually, she loved to swim. Flying was her only real phobia, and she was this close to overcoming it too.

He was silent for a moment, fiddling with the controls. “There’s smoke ahead from a wildfire. I’m going to detour to the east.”

Nate was a hard guy to read. All business. She wondered if he ever let loose or even cracked a smile. He didn’t come across as stuffy or rude, though, and it had to say something about his character that he donated his time to help fly rescue pets out of shelters. After he dropped Isa and Maya off in Reno, they would be boarding a second flight with another pilot, who was taking them to Portland.

It promised to be an exhausting day, but seeing Maya safely to her new foster family ought to be a good enough reward. That, and conquering her fear of flying. Since Nate didn’t seem to be much of a conversationalist, Isa pulled out her Kindle and settled back in her seat to read. She made sure to pick a happy, fluffy romance with absolutely no scary parts. Flying in a tin can over the Sierra Nevadas while a wildfire raged below was scary enough on its own.

She zoned out as the characters in her book fought their attraction for each other while the hero taught the heroine how to make pizza from scratch. It was messy and surprisingly sexy. A loud pop brought her back to reality sometime later. She looked up from her Kindle just as an alarm began to sound in the instrument panel in front of her. Nate swore. And was it her imagination, or did the engine sound funny all of a sudden?

“Don’t panic,” Nate said as he adjusted one of the controls.

Don’t panic? Isa gripped the armrests. This was so much more stress than she’d needed for her first-ever flight. She was an idiot not to have booked herself a quick trip to San Francisco or Las Vegas—someplace fun with a big, comfy commercial jet to get her there—because this…this was terrifying.

“What’s happening?” she asked as a shudder ran through the plane. Fear clutched her stomach like an icy fist.

“Figuring that out right now,” he said, continuing to read various gauges and screens in front of him.

The engine coughed, spluttered, and stopped. What? No. No way. This was not happening! The sudden silence was deafening. Her worst nightmare was coming true…

Nate twisted a key to his left, and the engine roared back to life.

Oh, thank God.

She sucked in a breath as relief swept through her system. With another cough, the engine silenced again. And this time it stayed off. The propeller in front of them twisted to a stop, along with Isa’s heart.

Dios mío,” she whispered, clutching her chest. They were going to crash in the mountains in the middle of a forest fire. This was it. She was done for.

“We’ve had some kind of mechanical failure, possibly a faulty intake valve,” Nate said, his voice still irrationally calm. “The engine’s seized up. Hang tight.” He pushed a button in front of him and started speaking into the radio. When she heard him say “Mayday,” something inside her snapped.

Isa prayed quietly, clinging to her seat. They glided along, plunging into a bank of clouds, with nothing but the eerie whistling of the wind outside her window to remind her that they’d lost power.

They were going down.

She was only twenty-seven years old. She’d never even been in love. She wanted to get married and have babies…and oh God

This was not how she was going to die. No, no, no!

The plane glided lower, bursting out of the clouds into clear air. Isa blinked. Off in the distance, flames glowed red through the trees. Below them, craggy mountains loomed, promising a swift, brutal end to their flight.

Nate was still on the radio, calling in their location as he tried again to restart the engine. He guided them over the rocky peaks below toward mossy green treetops in the distance.

“She’s equipped with a ’chute if it comes to that,” he said.

“A what?” Isa’s brain was misfiring, trying to reconcile this eerily calm, quiet descent with the disaster waiting at the end.

“A parachute. I’m looking for a soft spot to set her down.”

Set her down? As in, not die?

But Isa didn’t see anything that looked like a “soft spot.” She saw only rocks, and trees, and more rocks… She squeezed her eyes shut and sent up another silent prayer.

“I’m going to put us in the lake,” Nate said a few moments later.

She opened her eyes. A lake twinkled sapphire blue up ahead. It looked as good a place as any to crash-land, but it was so far away. Could they really glide that far?

“Brace yourself, Isa. I’m going to pull the ’chute. Grab ahold of your seat belt.”

She did as he said, gripping the straps that crossed her chest. With his right hand, Nate reached back and pushed Maya into the foot of the backseat area. He held her down while, with his left hand, he reached up and pulled a red handle overhead.

A horrific boom reverberated through the airplane as it jerked as though it had just slammed into something solid. Isa screamed. The plane pitched nose down toward the ground, her head slammed into the window beside her, and everything went black.

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