by Becky Harmon
Dex Alexander has made an easy transition from flying planes in the Army to being a civilian airline pilot. Life in the military kept her from forming any romantic relationships—at least that’s what she tells herself. Analyzing the real reasons would force her to dwell on feelings and emotions she’d rather not think about.
From the outside, it looks like Lucy Donovan leads an exciting life. Being a US Air Marshal takes her all over the world. But after fifteen years, the job has become a habit more than an adventure. She might finally be ready to settle down.
As the two women battle the challenges in their own lives, their connection to each other becomes evident. Can Dex convince Lucy they have a chance together before Lucy disappears again?
FROM THE AUTHOR
"When I began writing Brace For Impact I didn't know where it would take me. The story that would join a United States Air Marshal with a commercial pilot was already brewing in my mind when I took a vacation to Canada. It was an amazing trip and the story began to grow in my mind. I was very excited to take Dex and Lucy on a magical getaway to Niagara Falls and share some of the joy I felt while I was there. Many thanks for the inspiration to the two women that made my trip to Canada possible and to Lucy, the Canadian moose, for sharing her fuzzy face on the cover."
Dex pushed the blaring music to the back of her mind as she focused on the instrument panel in front of her. Following the instructions from the Wacasaw County Airport ground control, she changed the heading of her C-26 Metroliner. The large United States Army airplane leveled out as she searched the horizon for the runway markers. From behind her, she heard the music switch from Def Leppard to Black Snake and she held back a grimace. Staff Sergeant Blakely had warned her that the soldiers had prepared a compilation of Private First Class Ryan’s favorite songs.
The hot mid-July air in southern Kentucky shimmered as the airplane wheels touched the concrete runway. Her mind flashed back to so many identical but random nights in Afghanistan. There the sandy terrain stretched in front of her so far she could only find her location by the glowing panel in front of her. She could feel the resistance from the humidity in the air as it wrapped around the helicopter, forcing her to push the accelerator harder. To pray that the tiny lights in the distance would guide her back to safety for another night.
“How much longer, Captain Alexander?” a voice behind her asked, pulling her back to the present.
She glanced quickly at the young face cloaked in the darkness that stretched behind him. She carried nine soldiers on this flight along with her co-pilot and the cedar oak coffin holding PFC Ryan. Normally she only carried one or two soldiers with a body, but this was a special trip. PFC Ryan’s death had been the result of an unselfish act of heroism.
His company had been at Camp Charlie in the southern province of Kandahar, Afghanistan, for over seven months and was due to rotate back to the States. At an afternoon pickup game of football, PFC Ryan and his teammates heard the gate sentry’s warning cry about explosives. Rather than run away like so many around him, he ran toward the threat and jumped into the driver’s seat of the car in question, throwing the car in reverse, and getting away from the camp. His quick action had saved the soldiers standing sentry duty and potentially many more inside the camp. Due to the special circumstances, the company commander had granted forty-eight-hour leave for the entire squad to escort PFC Ryan’s body back to his family.
Dex landed the plane and taxied to the outskirts of the airport, where a group of people waited beside a black hearse. After the plane rolled to a stop, the soldiers behind her lifted the flag-draped coffin and descended the ramp. She slowly made her way to the tarmac following them. She had seen way too many soldiers returned to their families in this manner; she was thankful this would be her last.
As a military pilot tasked with returning soldiers’ remains to their families, she had forced herself to keep a distance from the grieving families, emotionally and physically. Survivor’s guilt was a monkey on every soldier’s back and one that she was not immune to. Those like her who departed before the job was finished carried the bulk of the burden, leaving behind friends and fellow soldiers to continue the battle while they returned to the safety and security of family.
Dex pushed aside her thoughts and joined PFC Ryan’s squad in saluting him one last time before stepping back into the shadows of her plane to watch their departure. The handful of family members and friends who had arrived to honor PFC Ryan as he was returned home was a somber group. Not the flag-waving, cheering crowd most soldiers were lucky enough to see when they returned. The woman in the middle of the crowd, probably his mother or maybe an aunt, watched closely as the soldiers secured the coffin inside the waiting hearse.
Most soldiers’ remains were transported in an aluminum case rather than a traditional coffin. The case would be adorned with a special cardboard cover embossed with an American flag and created to fit on top of the airline industry’s standard air tray for coffins. Since PFC Ryan was being given special honors, he was prepared for burial and clothed in his full dress uniform at Dover Air Force Base, then placed directly into his specially made coffin for burial. He would be going directly to his place of rest with no stop off at a funeral home. Unfortunately she saw this a lot. Many families didn’t have a lot of money to spare and now there would be one less paycheck coming in. Paying a funeral home for several days of services was not in their budget.
She watched as the soldiers piled into a nearby SUV to make their way to the gravesite. There they would pay their final respects to their fallen comrade and his family. She, on the other hand, would wait patiently for them to return and then fly them back to Delaware. From there they would catch a ride back to Afghanistan and rejoin their company.
Before she left them, she would study each of their faces, placing them in her mind with those of all the brave young men and women who had gone before them. War was hard and they would never gain back the years of their lives they had lost fighting the battle. She wanted never to forget the courageous soldiers she had transported to places that would change their lives forever. Or the relief on their faces when she flew them to safety.
She knew there was probably some relief showing on her face as well. Tomorrow, after eight years in the service, she would sign the paperwork to leave the United States Army and prepare to enter the world of civilian flying.
“Hello, everyone. My name is Tamika.”
US Air Marshal Lucy Donovan listened to the mumbled greetings from the other passengers around her. She knew from experience that Tamika would not be happy with their response or lack thereof. Keeping her head down she tried not to smile.
“Now.” Tamika stepped to the side of the check-in desk at Gate 17 and pulled the microphone closer to her mouth. “I don’t know how things are done at the rest of the gates but here at my gate when someone offers you a greeting it’s only polite to respond. So, let’s try that again.” She paused dramatically. “Hello, everyone. My name is Tamika.”
The response was larger this time. A few people even added Tamika’s name in their greeting.
Lucy grinned as she met Tamika’s eyes. Apparently Tamika was pleased with the response because she continued her normal script welcoming them to Toronto Pearson International Airport. To Lucy and the other travelers at Gate 17, Tamika’s next words brought immense pleasure. Their departing flight to Atlanta, Georgia, was currently on time.
Lucy made a final trip to the bathroom and remained standing when she returned to the gate. She didn’t usually fly Eastern Airlines, but Jan had asked her nicely to switch assignments. She liked staying on Jan’s good side and all the perks that went with it. Neither she nor Jan liked commitment, but an occasional hookup when they were in the same city worked well for both of them.
Her original assignment would have taken her to San Francisco and then back to Atlanta. This way she was arriving home a day early and Jan was spending the weekend with a babe on the beach before flying back to their base in Atlanta. It was a win-win situation for both of them.
Tamika’s voice interrupted her thoughts again. “Would passengers Lucy Donovan and Mason Tygart please see me at the podium? Thank you.”
Lucy didn’t have to look for Mason. He was easy to spot due to his over six-foot frame. She liked working with him. Not that two air marshals on the same plane really ever worked together unless there was an emergency. Two years ago, she and Mason had worked a spring break flight filled with drunken college students. It was a memory she wasn’t sure she would ever forget. Mason’s cool head and laid-back demeanor had certainly made the flight easier than she expected.
Her eyes met Mason’s as they approached Tamika. His sandy hair was covered with a blue ball cap and she knew she would find several more in multiple colors if she looked in his travel bag. He had told her once that no one looked at his face when he wore a ball cap. They knew the man in the red or blue or green hat but remove the hat and they couldn’t identify his face. He gave her a cursory nod and she returned it. No need to let anyone see they actually knew each other.
Tamika leaned across the podium and whispered, “You guys want to board first?”
“No, I’m in Zone One anyway,” Lucy said. It was hard to be upset with Tamika or other gate agents who were only trying to be kind, but she really hated having attention drawn to them. Their job was to fly under the radar unless needed, not to be identified and given special perks. She didn’t, but she knew some marshals took advantage of skirting the system.
She was pleased when Mason declined the offer as well. He was in Zone Six so he would be one of the last to board, but he didn’t seem to mind.
“Okay. I wanted to give you the option.” Tamika nodded at Mason, dismissing him. As he walked away, her intense brown eyes focused on Lucy. “I tried to call you last night.”
Though it sounded like a statement, Lucy knew it was a question. One of the hazards of her job was returning to the locale of her latest one-night stand too soon. Tamika’s creamy dark skin and her overzealous personality had placed her in Lucy’s sights only two weeks ago. She tried to be honest with all of her encounters, but sometimes she screwed up and messed with a sweet one. Tamika was a sweet one and she had a tender heart that Lucy did not want to hurt.
“I’m sorry. I was really tired and went to bed early.” That was partly true. Tamika didn’t need to know she wasn’t alone when she went to bed.
Tamika nodded, but Lucy could see her feelings were still hurt. This was the last place she wanted to have this conversation, which was why she normally never did so, but this time she made an exception. She didn’t want to drag Tamika along or say something harsh to help her get the hint faster.
“You’re really sweet, but I thought you understood that I don’t do relationships?” Lucy made her tone as gentle as she could.
“I know. I didn’t realize that meant we couldn’t hook up again.”
She tilted her head. Had she misunderstood Tamika’s call last night? No, she should stick to the game plan. Jan was the only person she trusted enough to meet on a repeat basis. It was a risk with other women. Though they said they were okay with a no-strings arrangement, they seldom really were. Tamika had been fun, but some things were best left alone.
“Maybe we can get a drink next time I’m in town,” she said, praying she wouldn’t be back in Toronto for a while and feeling terrible about it.
Tamika looked at her for a second and then nodded, picking up the microphone in front of her. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m happy to say your plane has arrived at the gate. If you could please clear a path for the departing passengers, we’ll get started with your boarding shortly.”
Lucy felt the brusque dismissal but was relieved Tamika wasn’t whining or crying. Oh, crying. That was something she couldn’t take. She tried really hard to choose women who weren’t that emotional, but sometimes she was caught by surprise. She leaned against the huge round pillar that blocked the seating area of Gate 17 from the aisle filled with anxious, fast-moving travelers. She watched Tamika and the other gate attendant make their boarding preparations while greeting the departing passengers. Tamika was an attractive woman. Her black hair and dark eyes accented the definition in her cheekbones and around her mouth. She knew she would be lucky to settle down with someone like Tamika, but the thought of doing so made her nauseous.
Using “settling” and “down” in the same sentence was like cursing and she would never say them out loud together. Even as a teenager, she had never taken any relationship seriously, and because of that she didn’t have any close friends growing up. After her father’s death, things in the emotional arena had only gotten worse. The hole he left in her life was only made bigger by a mother who was still there but unable to continue living. She realized very quickly that it was better to not get attached to anyone. Depending on herself gave her the confidence and security to face whatever life threw at her.
She always felt like she was playing a role in the world and never really living her own life. The switch from dating men to women in college had definitely helped her feel more at home in her own skin, but it didn’t help her ability to cultivate a relationship. She would try to listen to a lover talk but their words didn’t reach her. Caring about herself was all she could manage. She didn’t feel a tug on her emotions toward anyone else. Relationships were a burden and she just didn’t have it in her.
When Tamika called Zone One, she made her way toward the entrance to the walkway leading to the plane. She didn’t like to be smothered within a group, so she hung back letting everyone else push and shove for a position. Finally approaching, she gave Tamika her brightest smile.
“I hope you have a wonderful day.”
Tamika shrugged. “I will. Thanks. You too.”
She didn’t feel the sincerity in Tamika’s words, but she was confident Tamika was strong enough to bounce back. She was glad for that. She liked her. She really did. And she wasn’t lying when she said she didn’t have a relationship in her. Yes, she had a reason for closing the doors around her to anyone else, but the truth was it probably wasn’t in her DNA. People came and went in her life, and she wasn’t interested in asking any of them to stay.
The line in front of her stopped as she approached the door of the plane. She watched each person slowly disappear through the opening and into the body of the aircraft. She glanced behind her, hoping Tamika wouldn’t call the next zone. Her eyes flew back toward the group of passengers blocking her entrance. Biting her lip, she hid her anxiety at being trapped in the jetway with a bit of impatient foot tapping.
“Excuse me,” a voice said behind her as she felt a hand placed gently on her shoulder.
She spun, ready to put a stop to the pushy passenger behind her.
“Hey.” Her next words froze on her tongue as she took in the pilot’s uniform.
The woman took a step back, raising her hands in the air. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I’m running late. May I pass, please?”
Without a thought, Lucy bowed slightly at the waist and used her arm to guide the woman toward the open door. “Your chariot awaits.”
Even she was surprised sometimes at her own words. She liked to blame it on being a Gemini. Flirting was her first—and second—nature. A huge grin spread across the woman’s face, and Lucy felt her gaze slide across her body. She was used to being scrutinized by strangers since she knew few people in her profession and her workplace changed every day. This was different, though. She felt naked and unprepared. After a few seconds, she seemed to have passed the appraisal. The woman continued on, disappearing to the left into the cockpit.
Lucy took a deep breath. She couldn’t remember the last time a woman had stopped her from taking in air. In fact, she really couldn’t remember if that had ever happened before. She glanced at the flight crew welcoming the passengers onto the plane and was disappointed to see that she didn’t recognize any of them. If there had been someone she knew, she would have asked for the name of the pilot and maybe found out more about her.
As she located her seat and placed her bag into the overhead compartment, she replayed the scene. Did she imagine it or had she been perused like a sculpture sitting in a museum?
She laughed at the thought. She wasn’t prone to having such an active imagination. It seemed more likely that the woman really had studied every inch of her in those few seconds. There wasn’t a lot of ground to cover. She was barely five foot five and the pilot was at least an inch or two taller than she was. Her long brown, almost black, hair had been pulled back in a ponytail, but Lucy could imagine it loose. She liked letting her fingers get lost in thick, long hair, and this woman fit the perfect profile in so many ways.
She held back the small smile playing at the corners of her mouth. Pilots were off limits. At least, they normally were. Being selective was being smart. She didn’t like to think about boarding a plane flown by someone she had pissed off. Her job held too many other risks. She tried not to worry about things she couldn’t control, but in a sense this was one she could. She might have to deal with the unknowns of a passenger or their behavior, but she didn’t have any influence over them beforehand. Unless you count, the silent prayer she said each morning on her way to the airport. She did believe in a higher being that had protected her all her life. Although, she still wondered where He had been when so many died on September 11, 2001.
The death of her father had driven her to this profession. He had been killed on 9/11. He was a passenger on one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center. She was a few weeks into her second year in college with no solid major and no real direction in her life. The tragic loss of her dad turned her world upside down, and after a few months she returned to school with a plan. She changed her major from art appreciation to criminal justice and began applying at every federal law enforcement agency, with the air marshals being at the top of the list.
By the time she graduated, the air marshal division had been transferred from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to the Transportation Security Administration as a part of the new Department of Homeland Security. She was one of the three thousand plus recruits hired in the years following the September 11 attacks. Becoming an air marshal was her way of regaining control of the small portion of the world she lived in. She knew she couldn’t be on every flight, but on the flights she was on she would do everything in her power to ensure the passengers returned safely to their families.
She stood, allowing an older woman to take the window seat in her row. She watched the woman pull out a magazine and situate her bag under the seat in front of them. Magazine readers were normally chatters, and she regretted not getting her earbuds in sooner.
Adjusting the pistol resting in the small of her back, she settled back into her seat. The cool leather holster fit perfectly inside her jeans and she never felt uncomfortable. If anything it gave her reassurance that she was always in control of any situation. She had only ever pulled her weapon once and after careful assessment she had realized the passenger was mentally ill and didn’t really want to open the door while they were in the air.
Even though air marshals were required to be excellent marksmen and women, firing a weapon inside an airplane could be extremely hazardous. She could choose instead to use the expandable ASP baton she had clipped inside the front pocket of her jeans. She liked to wear her jeans a little loose so it was easy to conceal. Although at five inches collapsed, she did have to cut off the end of her pocket sometimes to make a better fit. The remaining piece of equipment she carried was a set of handcuffs that slid onto her belt in a quick snap leather case.
“Hi, I’m Ruth. Most of my friends call me Ruthie, though. I don’t mind so much anymore. It makes me feel younger.” The woman settled her large hips into the seat as she spoke. “Are you headed to or leaving home?”
Lucy forced her enthusiastic fake smile onto her face and faced the woman. Her gray hair was pushed up in the center by the sun visor cap she wore and there was a faint streak of lipstick clinging tightly to her lips.
Hoping a few disclosures would make Ruthie happy for now, she jumped right in. “I’m headed to visit my family in Iowa. I have to fly through Atlanta, though. It was the cheapest flight I could find. I can’t believe how expensive they’ve gotten.” She shrugged, giving Ruthie the opening to take back the conversation. As she expected, Ruthie did not miss a beat as she ranted about the price of airline tickets.
When the flight attendants began the safety briefing, she focused on them to discourage Ruthie from continuing their conversation. When they finished, she quickly plugged her silent earbuds into her ears and rested her head on the back of the seat. As she felt the plane leave the runway, her thoughts drifted back to the attractive pilot, imagining her hands as they moved across the buttons and levers that kept them in the air. Watching a woman’s hands had always been very arousing to her whether they were doing something sexual or only typing on a keyboard. She loved it when they moved with confidence and grace, asserting control of whatever waited at the end of their fingertips.
When the fasten seat belt light finally went out, she stood and rummaged around in her bag, taking a moment to observe the people around her. Two men in suits and ties were directly behind her. A man, woman, and teenager were across the aisle. Her eyes quickly took in multiple rows in both directions as her mind analyzed each passenger and conducted a rapid risk assessment. She kept an open mind about her profiling. The modern-day terrorist came in many sizes and colors. Single travelers always drew her attention first and then she branched out.
When she felt familiar and confident about the area around her and that there were no obvious potential hazards, she made a trip to the rear restroom and checked out where Mason was positioned on the plane. He sat a few rows from the rear in an aisle seat. The man beside him and the one across the aisle carried on an enthusiastic conversation. His head bobbed back and forth between them as their tone grew louder.
“Seriously, man, how can you even suggest Brady was involved?” Mason antagonized them.
“How can you say he wasn’t? He runs the show and the footballs were his,” one of the men responded.
Lucy didn’t look at them as she passed. She would never understand men and sports. If she didn’t know that Mason hated football, she might have been concerned with the tone of his voice. Mason was a golf man. He liked a sport he could play by himself, he had told her that on many occasions. Grown men reliving their high school or college football glory days weren’t his favorites to be seated by, but he followed enough sports radio to carry a conversation. And quite persuasively, she might add.
She was quickly in and out of the bathroom, casually bumping Mason’s shoulder as she passed. She worked hard to avoid being lackadaisical at her job and she liked that Mason would play with her. They never did anything that would draw attention to them so it was a challenge to think of something to annoy each other with. Once he had dropped his heavy overcoat over her head when he pulled it out of the overhead bin. She had to work hard to avoid laughing and pretend to be aggravated.
Their job had a lot of hazards, but the worst in her opinion was being overconfident to the point of carelessness. Flight after flight with nothing ever happening could lull a weary air marshal to sleep. She returned to her seat and pretended to study the Us magazine on her lap. She purposely bought magazines that didn’t hold her interest to avoid getting lost in an article. This magazine was one of her least favorites. To her it was nothing but a bunch of gossip. Crappy magazines were also another reason for the earbuds. A nosy seatmate could strike up a conversation regarding what she was reading and she wouldn’t be able to hold up her end. Most chatty people carried the conversation on their own anyway, requiring only an occasional head nod of agreement from her.
Turning the page of her magazine, she glanced up and noticed the serving cart blocking the walkway between first class and the cockpit. She was ready for a nice sugary soft drink, but she also knew flight attendants often used this maneuver to block the aisle when one of the pilots was leaving the cockpit during a flight. She returned her eyes to the magazine, glancing up occasionally to see which option would occur. She caught a glimpse of a dark ponytail disappearing into the first-class bathroom. When the woman emerged a few minutes later, Lucy was watching. The pilot hesitated before quickly returning to the cockpit. Lucy returned to her magazine, but her thoughts still lingered on the sexy hands in control of the plane.
* * *
Dex Alexander slid into her chair in front of the console and glanced at the pilot beside her. Grant had several years on her in age and experience.
“Thanks for the break. I was running so late to catch the flight I didn’t have a chance to stop off before I boarded.”
“No problem. I know they sometimes schedule us too close to make flights comfortably. No change to report here.”
She glanced at all of the gadgets in front of her and settled back into the co-pilot’s seat. Grant hadn’t removed his double-breasted black jacket, but he had unbuttoned it, so she followed his example. She was still learning what was acceptable on the job and what wasn’t. After two months of training, she had been in the cockpit for barely a week. Being back in a classroom hadn’t been fun, but lucky for her Eastern had sent her through an accelerated program. She had her Airline Transport Pilot certification and with another five hundred hours of flying time, she would be eligible for promotion to captain. She would gain a wreath around the star on the pilot wings she wore above her left breast.
“So how are things working out for you with Eastern?” Grant asked.
In so many ways civilian flying was easier and yet still harder than the military. There had been a comforting consistency in the military. Expectations were clear there, unlike with Eastern Airlines. The off-of-the-job freedom was something she would have to get used to after eight years in the military, as well as the planes. A turboprop engine was nothing compared to the twin-engine jet she was flying today. The up- and the downside was she still wore a uniform. She had traded the army flight suit for an Eastern Airlines suit. Black pants and double-breasted jacket with a black tie over a white button-down shirt. Neither uniform was shorts-and-T-shirt comfortable, but she also didn’t have the dilemma of what to wear each day.
Grant glanced at her. “So you like it so far? I know it must be a big change. Never really understood why the military used turboprop planes. They aren’t very efficient.”
She hated this quandary. Do you correct a senior officer? Often she let her opinion of the officer influence whether she offered correct information or not. If the man or woman was a jerk then she didn’t care if they continued to show their stupid side. With a good officer who had a future in the military, she wanted to make sure they were properly informed. She had mastered the ability to pick the necessary situations and the proper technique to administer it. If she was about to fly with a superior officer who didn’t know the required fuel amount for the trip they were making, she would make the correction as respectfully as possible whether she liked him or not. It was a life-or-death situation.
She took a chance that Grant would be open-minded rather than let his ego call the shots.
“Actually props are more efficient at shorter distances,” she explained.
“Really? I didn’t know that.”
“Yeah, it’s a misconception most people have. Props are good cargo planes or for drug enforcement. They fly slower for better ground visuals, and they can land on smaller runways. And they’re much quieter.”
“Learn something new every day.”
When it was clear Grant was finished with their conversation, she let her thoughts drift. She found herself unable to push the woman in the chance encounter from her mind. The woman’s dark hair was cut in a jagged bob style—longer in places and shorter in others. It flowed freely around her face, especially when she spun quickly. Dex’s thoughts had been on the flight and the rush to get to the gate, so she had been more than a little surprised by the way her body had reacted when they met.
Impulsive ideas didn’t really hit Dex in her personal life. Work life, yes. She could make a split-second, accurate, life-or-death decision with precision. Anything to do with emotions and feelings, however, needed time and planning, which could be why she was always single. She was surprised at her own actions then when she ripped a piece of paper from her notebook and scribbled down a note.
“Coffee?” she asked Grant, as she stood.
“Yeah, that’d be great.”
She flipped the light for the flight attendant and waited until they gave the all clear before opening the door.
She smiled at Olivia, the head flight attendant. “I’m sorry to be such a bother today. Could we get some coffee when you brew it?”
“Sure. Hold on a second. I just made a pot and can grab it right now.”
Dex folded her note into a small square and passed it to Olivia when she returned with the coffee.
“Can you give that to the dark-haired woman in 12D? She’s wearing a blue Boston Red Sox shirt.”
“Sure.” Olivia tilted her head. “Should I wait for a response?”
“No, that won’t be necessary. Thanks.” Dex handed Grant his coffee and secured the cockpit door before sliding back into her seat. Not knowing the woman’s flight information, she didn’t know if she would even be able to meet her. Hell, there was even the chance her gaydar was off or the woman was already in a relationship. She tried to convince herself it didn’t matter either way. But deep down, she felt like it did.