Authors: Trish Jackson
Table of Contents
SOUL MATE PUBLISHING
Cover Design by Fiona Jayde
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To my wonderful family
who are everything to me.
Quiet undemonstrative and introvert.
This is the craziest thing that’s ever happened to me. I’m shaking so bad I can hardly breathe and I think I’m gonna throw up. I glance back at the others, not really expecting any help from them. They have to all be nuts to have wanted to compete in this totally insane reality show. The cute cowboy winks, and gives me an encouraging smile.
He looks so relaxed.
“Your turn, Lexie,” the Old Man says.
I swallow and wipe my sweating hands on my jeans. My legs are like jelly and I want to sit down before I pass out.
“Go on.” He gives me a gentle nudge with his hand on my back.
I take a very small step forward and stare wide-eyed at the yawing hole in the aircraft. “I can’t.”
My voice doesn’t seem to work. It comes out in a pathetic whisper, and the loud engine noise drowns me out. I’m about to step back and hand in my resignation—anything but this—when I hear
voice. The one that haunts my nightmares.
“You can do it, Lexie.”
A far greater fear grips my whole body. I feel myself sway. I almost collapse. I grab on to the chair back. It cannot be him.
But I know that voice. I could never ever forget that voice.
So many things rip through my mind. He can’t be here. I know it’s not possible.
I glance down at my hand. My knuckles are white where I’m gripping the back of the seat.
He’s not here
. I swallow again. My mouth is too dry and my throat feels like it has a lump the size of a baseball in it.
I turn and scan the faces behind me.
. His gaze meets mine and I jump and blink and avert my eyes.
Oh God, it’s him. It really is him. In the khakis. Directly behind the Old Man. He’s changed his appearance, but the eyes are the same. And the voice.
Everything starts to spin.
Take deep breaths
“You can do it,” the hated voice repeats.
“Just relax and enjoy the beauty of it,” the cowboy adds. “The static line will pull the cord for you. Bend your knees when you land, and allow your body to fall or land on your butt. Elbows in. Hands together, on your chest.”
“I can’t do this,” I say, louder now, turning my head around. The Old Man is right behind me staring at me. His hand is on my back. He has to listen to me. I
can’t go now. I can’t be with that monster again. Ever.
What the . . .?
Oh God. I’m falling out of the aircraft. I pinch myself. It’s a nightmare. I’ll wake up soon. The ground is racing toward me at a terrifying speed. I can’t catch my breath. I think I’m gonna black out.
I feel a jerk and the chute opens. For a moment, the brakes have been put on, but I’m still falling. I look down at tan patches and helplessly watch them become fields and the darker blobs dotted over them morph into treetops. A herd of some kind of animals gallop away from me.
Here it comes.
My butt collides with ground. I bounce a couple of bone-rattling times, skid along the ground, and finally come to a dusty full stop.
Thank you, God.
The parachute is floating around and what am I supposed to do with all these cords?
Gotta get out of the harness.
I scramble to my feet.
Then it hits me. I jumped out of an airplane without any pre-flight instruction and landed without breaking any bones. Okay, my butt will probably hurt for a while, but I don’t think anything is seriously hurt.
I am vaguely aware of the others now, spread across the sea of golden grassland, and when I direct my gaze a little further away I can see them all moving around, and their parachutes are flapping in the breeze like mine.
“Here, let me help you.” The cowboy has on tight jeans, cowboy boots, and a checked short-sleeve shirt. He grins at me and a dimple appears on one cheek. His dark hair is pushed back off his face and hangs down to his collar at the back under his hat. His eyes are a striking pale green-blue and I think his name is Billy something. The way he stares makes me get hot all over, despite the circumstances.
“Billy Murphy,” he says, holding out his hand.
“Lexie King.” His hand is warm and his handshake firm. He holds on a little longer than is really necessary and stares into my eyes.
“You’re trembling,” he says.
“Damn right I am.” I’m short of breath and it comes out like each word is a new sentence. “Damn. Right. I. Am.”
“I don’t blame you. I heard you saying you’ve never jumped out an airplane before, when we were still up there.” He points to the sky. “And I know you weren’t at the training session. I would have remembered you.”
Something cold and wet nudges my leg through my jeans and I jump. “Jake? How in hell’s name did you get here?” I bend down to stroke Allan Dockery’s dog, wondering if I actually hit the ground too hard and died, and none of this is really happening.
“Crazy, ain’t it? Dockery made me put on an extra harness to carry him between my legs. I’ve seen them on TV when they take dogs with them on search and rescue missions,” the cowboy says. “Said he’ll enjoy running around and having fun.”
Jake is a four-year-old chocolate lab who goes everywhere with my boss, the ‘Old Man’, or Allan Dockery. I can’t believe he would allow Jake to be away from him for three days, but when I think about it a little more, I realize it is the kind of eccentric thing he would do. First he pushes me out the aircraft, and now he sends his dog parachuting into Africa with cowboy Billy Murphy.
A shout comes from the sky and Mark scores a perfect landing on his feet not far from me, with the camera still in his hand. He keeps it rolling. He slips out of the chute and heads over to me.
He turns off the sound, nods at the cowboy, glances at Jake, and then directs his attention to me. “Glad you made it okay, Lex. Let me help you with your chute.”
“I got it,” Billy Murphy says, and he steps closer and starts un-hooking my harness.
“Hey. Watch where you put your hands,” I say when they move dangerously close to my left boob.
“Sorry,” he says but his cocky grin tells me he’s not sorry at all. He eases the harness off my shoulders and I wriggle out of it.
My hands are shaking and my legs are wobbly. I slide down and sit cross-legged on the ground. “Ouch,” I yelp. “My butt hurts.”
Jake sits beside me and licks my face.
Mark hands me the camera. “Hold on to this and I’ll help fold the chute up.”
“I don’t remember your name,” Mark says to the cowboy. “Mine’s Mark, and this is Lexie.”
“Billy Murphy,” the cowboy says.
I pan the camera and zoom to
face. The khaki guy. He’s standing a little way off staring at us. Or at me. Could I be wrong about him?
“You okay, Lex?” I jump, like I’m guilty of something. “You’ve gone white and you’re holding the camera real tight.” Mark holds out his hands and I give it back to him.
I force a smile. My heart is beating so fast I can hardly breathe but I can’t tell anyone why. Not all of it, anyhow. “Did you see how the Old Man pushed me?” I blow out a heavy breath and suck it in again, and wipe my hand over my brow.
“Yeah. I saw it. But hey, you made it.”
“Seriously, Mark, I was so scared. I told him I didn’t want to jump and I was gonna resign. He didn’t care. Just pushed me. Look at my hands. They’re still shaking.” I hold them out for Mark to see.
“I’m glad you didn’t. Resign, I mean. I need you here with me. I can’t be the only camera operator. So you’re a little shaky, which is understandable, but you’re okay, right?”
I nod. “I didn’t break anything, if that’s what you mean. My butt is probably bruised, but I’m okay.”
“We need to find out if everyone else made it okay and nobody is injured,” Billy says.
A rush of blind panic hits me and I jump to my feet. He, the one with the hated voice wearing khakis, is heading toward us. I swallow hard and focus on his face. He looks a lot younger and they, whoever they are, have changed his nose and mouth, and made his cheeks flatter. His hair is dyed to make it appear light brown. It probably really has a lot of gray in it by now.
“I’m Paul Varnes,” he says. “Most people just call me Trip.”
I shiver uncontrollably at the sound of that voice.
Mark and Billy shake hands with him. “Looks like Lexie and I are gonna be the only camera operators for the first three days,” Mark tells him.
I move away from Trip—that’s not his real name, but I don’t want to ever hear it again, so Trip will do for now. I don’t want any part of him to touch me. He stares at me and my skin crawls. I scream silently.
Mark throws me a curious glance, and I avoid his eyes.
I try to remember Trip’s age. He must be over fifty now, but people probably think he’s around forty-five. He licks his lips. “Nice to meet you, Lexie.”
I scowl and snort, and grab Jake’s collar for support. Mark is helping Billy with the pile of parachutes.
“You look good,” Trip says.
“Stay away from me,” I say, in a low tone, through gritted teeth.
Billy comes back and strokes Jake’s head. “It was a pretty mean trick your boss played on us making all us contestants leave directly from the party after the briefing,” he says to me. “Some of the guys jumped without shoes. I wouldn’t be wanting to go about in this terrain without shoes on.”
“Yeah, we need to find the cargo bags. The Old Man, Allan Dockery, said he would slip their shoes in with the rest of the supplies,” Mark says.
“I can’t imagine landing without shoes on, but at least they were given some parachute training,” I add.
“We should head over that way,” Billy says, pointing to where a group of the others are gathering.
Trip edges closer to me. I lower my voice again. “I mean it. You stay the hell away from me.”
I turn around to find Mark right in front of me, a puzzled expression on his face. I gaze up into the sky to avoid his stare. A few fluffy white clouds are just hanging there, but beyond them it’s as blue as I’ve ever seen it. “We’re in Africa. This is insane,” I say to one in particular.
“Let’s go,” Trip says, and starts trudging toward the others. He follows a narrow trail through waist-high yellow grass. I walk behind him, making certain I keep my distance. Jake trots beside me, and I can hear Mark and the cowboy tramping behind me. I drop back further.
Mark speaks quietly. “You have a problem with the dude in khakis?”
“It’s nothing.” I say.
I know he doesn’t buy that, but he keeps his mouth shut as we keep walking. He’ll probably question me again when Billy isn’t close enough to hear.
Mark has been a camera operator for seven years to my three, and he always seems to be so much in control, which is one of the big pluses about working with him. He’ll be thirty his next birthday, while I’ll be twenty three in three weeks’ time. He’s nice-looking, but married, so he’s off limits, and we’ve always had a professional relationship. I can totally understand him getting the job as the head camera operator for this project, and I know I totally owe it to him that I got to be included.
Accepting the offer to be part of the camera crew for Allan Dockery’s new reality show in Africa was an epically insane idea for me. I’m usually a blubbering mess when I have to go to anyplace I’m not familiar with, and I’m pathetic when it comes to socializing. That’s why I work
the camera. I have to somehow get rid of the sign on my forehead that clearly says ‘victim.’ I don’t know how this stuff works, but I know it’s there, because every bully in the world seems to be able to read it. I was hoping this experience would help me with my problems. It would force me to work through them instead of avoiding them.
Now it’s all ruined before it even starts. I’ll have to ask the Old Man to replace me and let me go home. I can’t stay here now that Trip, or whatever he calls himself these days, is here.
We reach a group of people. “Is everyone okay?” Trip asks.
“I need my shoes, dude.” He’s young, and is wearing long khaki shorts, hanging low on his hips, a black Foo Fighters T-shirt, and a baseball cap worn backwards that hides most of his short brown hair. I don’t know what he did with his black-rimmed glasses while he jumped, but he has them on now. His feet are bare, and I remember he had flip-flops on in the aircraft.
“My name’s Mark and this is Lexie, my associate camera operator. What’s your name?” Mark points the camera at the shoeless guy.
“Jared. Jared Harner.”
I hear a shout. “My leg,” a man’s heavily accented voice cries from a short distance away. “I think I broke it.”