Excerpt – Safe Beside You

Chapter 1

Carrie Donellson’s wheelie thudded onto the floor as she leaned tiredly against the counter of Pacific Regional Airline. The harried woman at the counter continued to ignore her. The flights listed on the board behind the customer service representative flipped, then flipped again. Two more “delayed” flights joined the “cancelled” queue. Carrie pursed her lips. Her Seattle flight was the only one still scheduled to leave, though two hours behind original departure.

“Excuse me, Miss. Could I—”

“Not now, Ma’am. I’m trying to help this gentleman.” Airline Girl pointed to the man standing to Carrie’s right. She gave him a quick smile when his green eyes flicked her way. He pulled his hands out of his pants pockets, and a chocolate brow lifted, as if he, too, was asking her to back off.

His voice was charmingly mellow when he focused on the airline representative. “I’d be grateful if you’d put me on that standby list for Seattle. Or point me to the bus station, if there’s no chance of getting on.”

“Your first time here?” the woman simpered. She gave him a bright smile.

She must cozy up to good-looking male passengers. Carrie peered sidelong at the man. He wore slightly wrinkled jeans and a sport jacket. Bright green Skechers adorned his feet, the most colorful part of his ensemble. His white shirt was unbuttoned at the neck and the ends of what had to be a tie draped out of a jacket pocket. He was tall, his arms to the elbow—all Carrie could see below his rolled up sleeves—and hands were tanned, suggesting that he worked outside, but his nails were clean and neatly trimmed. Carrie detected was slight scent of warm skin and soap. Maybe he’s returning from a beach vacation qua business trip.

Airline girl completed her erratic tapping on the computer and sighed her apology. “I’m so sorry, sir. That flight’s just been cancelled. I can get you on a local shuttle if you’re willing to wait an hour. It’s a freight run with several short stops. But it has a couple of seats open. Want to grab one?”

“You’re an angel. What do I owe?” One hand reached for his back pocket.

“Actually, the difference is on us, since your original flight was cancelled.”

Carrie watched, dismayed, as the woman predicted death to her plans for getting home. Her hoped-for flight to Seattle—the same one the man wanted—slid into the “cancelled” queue. She groaned under her breath and leaned against the counter again, inadvertently bumping the man’s shoulder as she did so.

“Excuse me, sir. Miss. You said there were two seats open on that flight. Could I have the other one? I need to get home.”

The woman tapped again on her computer. “Okay.” Her expression implied she was willing to do almost anything to move Carrie along. She handed a piece of paper to the gentleman and one to Carrie, and pointed. “Out that door, and across the street. Shuttles Unlimited is about halfway down and to the left. Show them your vouchers.” She waved a hand above her head as she scanned the long line of people behind Carrie. “Next.”

The man turned in Carrie’s direction. “Need help with your bag?”

She grasped the handle of her carry-on and repositioned her purse on the other shoulder of her teal silk-blend dress. She wiggled her toes in her four-inch heels, wishing she’d worn something less stylish and more comfortable for standing in long lines on uneven cement floors. “Thanks, I’ve got it. What about yours?”

He patted the pack slung over one shoulder. “My other gear’s probably already in Seattle. I booked it through when I left Phoenix. Got bumped in Denver—the dangers of flying standby—and was diverted here.” The corners of his mouth curved upward, revealing a dimple in his right cheek. “At least it’s not storming like it was in Denver. I should have booked myself through LAX. Probably would have missed all this bad weather.”

He held her gaze then gave her a slow grin. “Except then I wouldn’t have met you.”

Does he always flirt with women he doesn’t know? Carrie felt her cheeks warm. She wanted to give him a snappy comeback but was too exhausted to think of one.

He seemed to sense her discomfort.

“Wonder how long it’ll take us on this freight run.” He pushed the door that opened onto the street and into the blustery winds.

“Chances are I’ll fall asleep the minute we take off.” She did a little half skip to catch up to his long-legged stride.

“You live in Seattle?” he asked.

“Near there. Evergreen. South and a bit east.”

His dimple winked at Carrie again. “Small world. My sister works there at an architecture firm.”

“So, you’re from Seattle?”

He ran a hand through his dark brown hair, his green eyes seeming to deepen when he angled his head in her direction. “Temporarily. Just spent a month at a Navajo medical clinic.”

“You’re a doctor?”

“ER resident. My last year.” He opened the door to the office of Shuttles Unlimited and motioned for Carrie to precede him.

She approached the ticket counter. “We—he and I—have vouchers for your flight to Seattle,” she announced.

“Have a seat, folks. I’ll call you when we’re ready. Hope you don’t mind being on a milk run.” The whiskered gentleman peered over half-glasses at Carrie and the doctor. “You’re sharing the passenger cabin with a dog.”

Carrie chuckled and took a seat. “I don’t mind. What about you?”

“Me, neither. Unless he bites.”

“He’s big, but he seemed friendly enough,” the counter man replied. “And he’s crated.”

The doctor looked at Carrie. “I’m Brian.” He sat down next to her. “Brian Flanagan.”

She held out her hand. “Carrie Donellson.”

“What brought you to Idaho Falls?”

“My uncle’s funeral.” Her heart thumped against her ribs, remembering the emotional scene yesterday. Her eyes welled unexpectedly. She’d shed more than enough tears, and the dull ache in her heart wouldn’t go away. Uncle Frederick had been among her favorite relatives. She wanted to think her time with Aunt Harriet had been good as they’d laughed and reminisced about Uncle Fred. If only the other people who’d come to pay their respects hadn’t been so weepy. Uncle Fred would have told them to laugh, kick up their heels and send him off with smiles instead of tears.

“My sympathies. Would you like some coffee?”

She pointed to the pot on a counter behind the man who had taken their tickets. “Is that pot for us or just the employees?”

“I’ll ask.” Brian approached Whiskers at the desk. “Mind if we grab a couple cups of that coffee you’re brewing?”

“Help yourself.”

Nice ass, Dr. Flanagan. Carrie gave herself a mental slap for appraising the backside of the almost-doctor. What would Quentin say if he knew she was ogling the man, front and back? He very nicely filled those jeans. Carrie speed-dialed her phone. A quick wave of relief washed over her when she had to leave a message. That way her fiancé couldn’t ask her what was wrong if he guessed her thoughts about the hunky doctor.

“Quentin, I’m still here. My scheduled flight was cancelled. I’m rebooked on a shuttle. Don’t bother leaving for the airport until I can give you an update. I know how busy you are. Love you.”

“Here you go.” Brian held a steaming cup in each hand. “What do you do when you’re not flying to funerals? If you don’t mind my asking.”

“I work at a dress shop—Designer Dreams, a little boutique in Evergreen, near Bellevue. If you’re looking for something nice to buy your wife or your sister, stop in. I’ll be happy to show you what we have.” She reached into her purse and pulled out a business card.
Brian slipped the card into his shirt pocket. “No wife, but I’ll let my sister know. She’s the clothes horse in the family.”

The sounds of airplane engines revving interrupted their conversation. Mr. Whiskers waved an arm in Carrie and Brian’s direction. “You two can come aboard.” He reached for Carrie’s luggage. “I’ll just stow this in the back, Miss. And that backpack, too. Not a lot of room in the cabin.”

Carrie and Brian followed the man to the stairs leading into the small cabin of the plane. Inside, another man was already seated in the left side window seat, his coat bunched on the seat next to him. He glanced at them briefly before turning back to his newspaper. A long-haired, black-and-white Siberian husky stared at them as they edged past his crate, which was strapped down and hooked to two eyebolts on the floor of the plane.

Behind the dog crate, Carrie took the seat next to the right side window.

Brian slid into the seat next to her. “Mind if I sit here, the only one left?” He grinned.

“Has your name on it.” She looked behind her at the stacks of boxes strapped in place with bungee cord. “That man wasn’t kidding when he said we were traveling with freight.”

A man in a Shuttles Unlimited uniform entered the plane and pulled the door closed. “Belt yourselves in good.”

“How old is this plane?” Brian asked.

“Built in the thirties. Used to be a corporate plane. We use it for short hauls, mostly freight. We’re headed north and the bad weather is supposed to stay south of us, but we might encounter rough air. Another storm is expected out of Canada. We’ll do our best to get you home beforehand. First stop is Boise. I think that’s where you’re getting off, right?” He bobbed his head in the direction of the man in the seat nearest the door.

The man nodded.

The dog whined. Carrie leaned forward and placed a hand flat against the mesh. “Hey, boy. How are you?”

The dog’s ice blue eyes focused on her. He sniffed her hand before giving it a quick swipe. He wagged his tail and sat down, his head pressed against the top of the crate.

“Tight quarters, isn’t it?” Carrie turned over a plastic-encased freight consignment order tied to the top of the crate. “You are beautiful, all that black fur on top of the white. Your name is Baron.”

The dog’s ears swiveled in her direction before Carrie scooted back and reached for her seat belt.

Minutes later, the engines took on a higher pitch and the plane began moving through the darkness, past several large passenger jets parked at the terminal. Winds buffeted the plane as it climbed into the October sky and banked sharply to the northwest. Carrie looked out the window as the lights from the town faded away and darkness enveloped them.

“Feels like we’re fighting our way into the air,” she said to Brian, as the plane shimmied.

“Long as we get home,” he murmured tiredly.

“You’re not concerned? About the weather the pilot mentioned?”

He peered at her in the pale light of the overhead lamps. “Nothing we can do about it. Take my hand. You can keep me safe.” He smiled. “I’m just glad we’re headed home. Too many hours awake. I need a nap.”

Warmth surrounded her fingers as her hand cocooned in his larger one. The engines settled into a steady drone after the plane gained altitude and seemed to level off. Carrie imagined them flying above the clouds that sat so low on the hills surrounding Idaho Falls, where gusts of rain had lashed the windows at the airport. She could see nothing but rivulets of water on the outside of the window. I’ll call Quentin when we get to Spokane.

~ ~ ~

Brian leaned back in his seat, glad to be on his way, back to the hospital and his duties as an ER resident. The month he’d spent among the Navajo people had secured his desire to schedule annual trips there once he completed his residency and had a regular job. Perhaps at a hospital in Arizona or New Mexico. With government cutbacks, the two docs at the reservation clinic had been grateful for his help.

His pretty seatmate was petite, with gold-flecked brown eyes, her dark curls held off her face in one of those twisty tie things he’d seen in a female resident’s hair. Carrie seemed eager to get home. Certainly hadn’t hesitated when she’d learned of the shuttle. Probably missed the man she’d called, though she hadn’t asked him to pick her up. Likely her husband, from the size of the diamond on her left hand.

What husband wouldn’t want to meet his wife? And she’d just come from a funeral. He was reminded of a similar duty he’d performed when his mother died. Before his dad had fled to England, away from the little village in Ireland where he’d lived so many years. Brian was thankful Fiona, his sister, was living in the States and working for that architectural firm in Evergreen. Small world that Fiona worked in the same town as Carrie.

The plane shuddered and the pitch of the engines changed. Brian looked past Carrie, who appeared to have fallen asleep, her hand still cradled in his. He saw nothing but blackness out the small window. No stars. They must still be among the clouds. The other passenger was snoring softly. Even the dog had settled down, his head resting on his snowy paws.

Brian closed his eyes and tried to relax. The pilot had said their first stop was Boise. It couldn’t be that far from Idaho Falls, and they’d been in the air nearly a half hour. The downward tilt of the plane’s nose told him they must be preparing to land. Fifteen minutes later, they were on the ground.

The man scheduled to disembark in Boise stooped to avoid hitting his head on the ceiling and disappeared down the stairs into the darkness. Cold wet air swirled into the plane, telling Brian it was raining, maybe even storming. The copilot closed and latched the door and slipped behind the curtain separating the cockpit from the cabin. “Next stop, Spokane,” he announced. “After that, Yakima, and then Seattle.”

Carrie hadn’t stirred. Brian sighed as the plane fought its way back into the sky. His seatmate had the right idea. Sleep.

~ ~ ~

Brian woke sometime later when the plane screamed in protest against the buffeting headwinds. Carrie was awake, too, leaning toward the window as if to see where they might be. She squeezed his hand tightly.

“Hey,” he murmured. “See anything?”

“No.” She gasped as the plane jumped in the air and then plummeted sideways. Her head banged into the window and Brian’s shoulders collided with hers as the plane slipped and slid in the air.

“Sorry,” he murmured. “How’s your head?”

She rubbed her temple. “Really rough air. Wish we could see.”

The dog whined and began to howl.

“Quiet, dog,” Brian commanded. Did the dog know something? Was it true animals sensed danger in advance of humans?

“His name is Baron,” Carrie reminded him.

The dog quieted briefly before beginning to whine again and Brian heard murmurings in the cockpit.

Brian tried again. “Quiet, Baron.”

But the dog was now standing, his feet dancing in the too-small crate. He whined and howled again, as if in answer to the engines’ high-pitched screams.

Brian unlatched his seat belt and half walked, half fell toward the cockpit curtain, which he pulled aside.

“Where are we?”

“Get in your seat,” the copilot ordered, his gaze riveted on the instrument panel.

“Mayday, mayday, mayday!” The pilot spoke into his headset. “Flame-out of starboard engine, instruments unreliable. Mayday mayday mayday!”
Shit. Brian debated asking a question before the plane suddenly canted to the right and then to the left as if unable to find its center. The nose shifted downward steeply.

“Get in your seat and belt in. Now!” The copilot commanded. “I see an open space ahead, Bart. At two o’clock.”

The pilot seemed to nod.

Brian backed away from the cockpit and fell into his seat as the plane slid suddenly to the left. The nose dipped again. He felt for his seat belt, unable to find the buckle.

Carrie grabbed his arm. “Are we going to crash?”

“The pilots spotted a field.” Brian mentally willed the pilots to do their job and they must have listened, for the plane seemed to level off. But the pitch of the remaining engine changed.

“We’ve lost an engine,” Carrie said. She leaned toward the window and stared into the darkness outside.

“What he said,” Brian muttered, still searching for his seat belt. He glanced out the window to his left, surprised to see treetops shining in the under-wing light. Suddenly, the tree tops disappeared. Something thudded—once, twice—against the side of the plane. The dog howled and Carrie screamed as the plane slammed into something and then began a slow-motion slide to the left.

A flash of red caught Brian’s eye as he was thrown from his seat. Then the plane nose-dived forward and his head and one shoulder slammed into the side of the dog crate. Pain and a cascade of stars preceded his descent into darkness.