About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Before you find yourself stranded in the woods with a cranky apex predator, ask yourself: Do I really want to go on a camping trip with a vampire? The answer is probably going to be no.
—Where the Wild Things Bite: A Survival Guide for Camping with the Undead
An evil transportation-hating monster had devoured my plane. And in its place, the monster had left a little, bite-size plane crumb behind.
I stood on the tarmac of the Louisville airport, staring in horror at the plane crumb as my purse, a brown leather tote bag, dangled from my fingers. This was not a momentous beginning to my trip to Half-Moon Hollow.
Despite the fact that I could see crowds of people milling around the airport through the windows, I felt oddly alone, vulnerable. A handful of planes were parked at nearby gates, but there were no luggage handlers, no flight staff. I’d never boarded from the tarmac before, and the short, rickety mobile staircase being pushed up against the side of the plane like a ladder used for gutter cleaning didn’t make me feel more confident in the climb.
When I’d booked my flight to westernmost Kentucky, I knew small planes were the only models capable of flying into Half-Moon Hollow’s one-gate airport. But I’d thought the plane would seat at least thirty people. The vessel in front of me would maybe hold a baker’s dozen, if someone sat on the pilot’s lap. There were only four windows besides the windshield, for God’s sake.
“This is the right plane, in case you’re wondering,” said a gruff voice, which was accompanied by a considerable whiff of wet tobacco.
I turned to find a florid, heavyset man in a pilot’s uniform standing behind me. His healthy head of wavy black hair was counterbalanced by a pitted, sallow complexion and undereye bags so heavy they should have been stored on the nearby luggage cart. A lifetime of drinking had thickened his features and left a network of tiny broken capillaries across his broad nose. Given the sweat stains on his uniform, I might have doubted his current sobriety, but I supposed it took considerable motor control to keep that large unlit cigar clamped between his teeth. His name tag read “Ernie.”
“That is not a plane,” I told Ernie. “That is what happens when planes have babies with go-karts.”
Snorting, he pushed past me toward the plane. The olfactory combination of old sweat and wet cigar made me take a step back from him. I was starting to suspect his pilot’s license might have been written in crayon.
“Well, if you don’t want to fly, there’s always a rental car,” the pilot snarked, climbing the stairs into the plane. “It’s about a four-hour drive, until you hit the gravel roads. You might make it before noon tomorrow.”
I frowned at Ernie the pilot’s broad back. If there was anything I hated more than flying, it was driving on unfamiliar, treacherous roads alone at night. Besides, there were too many things that could happen to the package between here and the Hollow. I could spill coffee on it while trying to stay awake. It could be stolen while I was stopped at a gas station. A window malfunction could result in the package being sucked out of the car on the highway. I needed to get it back to Jane as soon as humanly (or vampire-ly) possible. So driving was a nonstarter.
I gritted my teeth and breathed deeply through my nose, watching the way the sickly fluorescent outdoor lights played on the dimpled metal of the wings. The tiny, tiny wings.
The pilot stuck his head out of the plane door. “Plane’s not gonna get any bigger,” he growled at me around the cigar.
“Good point,” I muttered as I took the metal stairs. One-in-nine-million chance of dying in a commercial plane crash. One-in-nine-million chance. There had to be at least nine million and one other people flying commercial right now. One of them had to have worse luck than me . . . they were probably on a bigger plane, though.
Even though my cargo was completely legal, I still felt the need to look over my shoulder in an extremely obvious manner as I boarded. My superspy skills were supremely lacking. The looks that security gave me as I visibly twitched while sending my bag through the X-ray machine were bad enough. But I’d never hand-delivered an item to a customer before, especially an item of such high value. My bonding and insurance couldn’t possibly cover something that was considered priceless to the supernatural community at large. I just wanted to get it out of my hands and into those of my employer, Jane Jameson-Nightengale, as quickly as possible.
Despite my fervent wish that the plane was secretly a TARDIS, it was not, in fact, bigger on the inside. And except for Ernie the pilot, it was completely empty. This was, after all, the last flight from Louisville to the Hollow for the night, which made it a risky proposition, layover-wise. From what Jane had told me, most Hollow residents didn’t want to risk being stuck overnight in Louisville, so they planned their connections for earlier in the day. But a client meeting had kept me in Atlanta until the last minute, so I’d booked a late flight. It worked better for me to land late anyway, since Jane, an oddly informal vampire who insisted that our relationship be on a first-name basis, would be meeting me at the airport. Pre-sundown pickup times didn’t work for her.
Though minuscule, the interior of the plane was comfortable enough, with its oatmeal-colored plastic walls, the smell of recently applied disinfectant, and its closely arranged seats. Though I clearly had my choice of spots, I took the time to find my assigned berth in the second row. I declined putting my tote bag in the tiny storage compartment at the front of the plane. Despite being the only passenger, I was uncomfortable with the idea of not being able to see my bag at all times. I turned, checking the distance from my seat to the door-slash-emergency exit. Studies showed that passengers were five times more likely to survive a crash if they sat within five rows of the emergency exits.
Unfortunately, this seat also put me directly under a vent for the air system, also known as the “dispenser of aerated bacteria.”
Even as I pulled an herbal immune-support chewable out of my bag, I knew I was being silly. The flight would only be an hour long. What were the chances of the plane crashing when it was only in the air for sixty minutes? And surely I wouldn’t have enough time to contract anything from Ernie’s tobacco-stained germs?
As if he could hear my thoughts, Ernie let loose a phlegmy, rattling cough that seemed to shake the windows. Slowly, I reached up and twisted the vent closed.
Besides, who knew what sort of antibiotic-resistant superbugs previous passengers had sneezed into the ventilation system on earlier flights? I didn’t care what the airline said about its amazing HEPA filters, I pulled the neck of my cardigan over my nose and pulled a pack of TSA-approved hand-sanitizing wipes from my bag. I swabbed down my armrests, the window, and—checking to make sure Ernie wasn’t watching—the vent cover.
And for some reason, while I was wiping down the safety-procedure card with a fresh towelette, the cruel, ironic bits of my brain were running through the list of famous people who had died in small-plane crashes. Ritchie Valens, John Denver, Aaliyah.
I flopped my head back against the seat, jamming my hair clip into my scalp. I was too tired for this. I’d spent almost two hours in Atlanta traffic just to get to the airport in time for this flight. I’d braved lengthy, draconian security checks. I missed my cozy little restored home in Dahlonega. I missed my home office and my thinking couch and my shelves of carefully preserved first-edition books. I promised myself that when I survived this trip, I would reward myself by retreating to my apartment for a week and bingeing on delivered Thai food and Netflix.
I curled forward and rested my head on my hands. My stomach churned, and my head felt all light and swirly. I was too tired to be this nervous. I’d taken my antianxiety meds in the ladies’ room in the airport, timing them carefully so I wouldn’t climb the walls of the plane from the moment it took off. Why weren’t they kicking in?
I heard footsteps on the metal ladder but did not raise my head. Whoever it was moved down the aisle and slide into the seat across from me.
Damn it, did that mean I wasn’t the only passenger on this flight? I was going to have to take another immunity booster. I thunked my forehead against the folding tray table. And then I remembered that University of Arizona study that found that up to sixty percent of the tray tables from the major airliners tested positive for MRSA. So I sat up. Surely headrest parasites were a better option than flesh-eating bacteria.
I didn’t move. Maybe if I didn’t move, he would think I was asleep and leave me alone. Was it beneath me to use possum tactics to avoid politely strained conversation?
“Hello in there?”
Augh. No. The new passenger was a talker, an insistent talker.
I was not one of those “we’re in this together for the next few hours, so we might as well be polite” passengers. I did not make polite small talk. I didn’t talk about what I did for a living or compare my “worst flight ever” experiences with my seatmate. And I definitely didn’t “share a cab” to my hotel with a near stranger, no matter how nice he was during beverage service. People who did that ended up on Dateline.
“Fear of flying?”
I ceased my forehead abuse long enough to look up at him. The other passenger smiled and quirked his eyebrows, the sort of gesture most people appreciated in a fellow traveler.
Oh, the new passenger was handsome, in that polished, self-aware manner that made women either melt in their seats or shrink into themselves in immediate distrust. Unfortunately for him, I fell into the second category.
I did not dissolve at the sight of his high cheekbones. I didn’t coo over his luminous brown eyes or the dark goatee that defined his wide, sensual mouth. The collar of his blue V-necked T-shirt showed a downright lickable collarbone and the beginnings of well-defined pectoral muscles. I did not liquefy. In fact, my initial reaction was to trust him even less than I trusted Ernie.
OK, fine, I did feel these strange little bubbles rise up through my belly, like effervescent butterflies. But most of those butterflies were swatted down by the heavy hand of common sense.
So I might have been a bit more snappish than polite when I responded, “No, fear of awkward conversations before crashing.”
But my curt tone only seemed to make him grin, as if my irritation was amusing. It was a sincere grin, without an ounce of condescension, which made him even more handsome. Some tiny nerve inside me twinged, a counterintuitive flicker in my otherwise steady flow of neuroses. That little nerve made me wish, just for once, that I was the kind of woman who could start a conversation with a handsome stranger, approach some new experience—hell, try a new brand of detergent—without analyzing all of the possible ways it could go wrong.
While my mother had made it clear on more than one occasion that I was not “conventionally pretty,” I knew I wasn’t completely unfortunate-looking. My DNA had provided me with my father’s fine-boned features and my mother’s wide, full lips, though mine weren’t twisted into unhappy lines as often as hers. My eyes were large, the amber color of old whiskey, with an undeserved mischievous tilt. Altogether, my slightly mismatched features made for a pleasant face. And yet men like this, completely at ease with themselves, sent my dented ego into a spiraling tizzy whenever they came near. In other words, my counterintuitive nerve flicker was an idiot and needed to stay quiet.
The handsome new passenger’s smooth tones derailed my train of thought yet again. “It’s too bad the ride is so short. They don’t even have beverage service on this flight. You might have been able to take the edge off.”
“I’m not much of a drinker,” I told him, giving him a quick, jerky smile that felt like a cheek tremor. I nodded my head toward the back of the plane. “Besides, where would they put the beverage cart?”
“Oh, well, maybe I’ll be able to distract you,” he offered, the corner of his mouth lifting again.
The intimate way he said it, the way he was smiling at me, eyes lingering on my jeans-clad legs, sent a little shiver down my spine, despite the simultaneous warning Klaxons sounding in my head. I pulled my book out of my bag and placed it on the seat next to me, like a shield. It was a tactic I’d used before on the rare occasions when I used public transportation. People were far less likely to ask, “Hey, is that book any good?” when it was intimidating classic literature the size of a brick. And those who did interrupt to ask about the brick-sized book were put off by a prolonged bitch brow.
“And how are you going to do that?” I asked him, holding up the well-worn paperback. “You’ve got some very serious competition.”
Thank you, conversational gods, for not letting the phrase “stiff competition” leave my lips.
“Oh, I’m sure I could come up with a way to entertain you.”
And his smile was so full of naughty promise that the only response I could come up with was “Guh.”
The conversational gods abandoned me more quickly than I had hoped.
I blushed to the tips of my ears, but he seemed amused by it, so maybe a red face was considered charming on the Planet of the Narrowly Torsoed.
Given that I was from a very different planet—the home of ladies built like lanky twelve-year-old boys—I doubted very much that our definitions of “fun” matched up. Given the flawless delivery of what was a pretty obvious pickup line, he was clearly a practiced flirt. Men generally practiced this sort of skill at parties, clubs. My idea of a good time was a movie marathon with my best friend and assistant, Rachel, featuring at least five different actors playing Sherlock Holmes and then a debate about who did the best job. That’s right. Anna Whitfield, one-woman party.
“Do you consider Dante’s Inferno a little light travel reading?”
“It’s an old favorite,” I said, without looking up at him.
“Well, you’ve successfully intimidated me, so congratulations.”
I laughed softly, but before I could answer, the door slammed behind us, and the plane started to taxi. A small overhead speaker began to play prerecorded safety instructions, and I relaxed back into the seat. I pulled the safety instruction card from the seat pocket in front of me and began reading along.
“Really?” the stranger asked. I nodded, without looking at him, checking the emergency exit door for opening instructions. It looked like a case of “Pull the big red handle upward and left while trying to contain your terror.” Excellent.
I followed along, checking the location of the oxygen masks (there weren’t any) and running lights toward the emergency exit (also, no). They really needed to increase the amount of safety equipment required on tiny planes. Or at least make safety cards specific to tiny planes so passengers didn’t realize how much safety equipment they weren’t getting.
“You have flown before, yes?” the stranger asked.
I ignored him. I would not die in a fiery plane crash because I neglected the (mostly useless) safety card for a pair of beautiful semisweet-chocolate eyes.
The recorded voice ended the safety presentation. I tucked the card away in the seat pouch in front of me, tightened my seatbelt, and clenched my eyes shut while the plane struggled to lift off from the runway. On the third midair dip, I pressed my head back against the seat, as if holding a rigid posture would somehow get the plane in the air safely.
The first three minutes after takeoff and before landing were the most prone to mishaps. For 180 seconds, I prayed the only way I knew how, visualizing the opposite of all of the horrible potential outcomes running through my head. Breathing deeply through my nose, I pictured the plane lifting off, maintaining a nice straight path through the air, and landing in Half-Moon Hollow with my purse and person intact. I was calm. I was safe. The book was in my hands, and I was presenting it to Jane Jameson-Nightengale, intact.
And when I opened my eyes, my purse was open on my lap, and my hands were swimming through the contents, searching for the package. Across the aisle, the stranger’s head was bent over a magazine. I felt faint, as if I were falling inside myself, separated from my own body as my arm started to lift. I could see myself yanking the package out of my purse, as if I were watching it happen on a movie screen.
What was I doing? I hadn’t pulled the package from my bag since getting through security. Why would I show it to this person I barely knew?
As suddenly as it began, the spell was over, and I practically sagged against my seat. My long, sweater-clad arm was still raised and my hand still stretched as I shook off the strange, dizzy sensation. I’d never felt anything like that before. Was I coming down with something? Had I had some sort of stroke? I didn’t feel tingling or numbness in my extremities. I wasn’t confused, beyond wondering what the hell had just happened to me. Maybe it was an inner-ear problem? Or maybe the veggie wrap I’d eaten at the airport sandwich shop was contaminated? I should have known better than to trust airport cuisine. I probably had some sort of dirt-borne E. coli from unwashed lettuce.
I glanced across the aisle to the stranger, still poring through his magazine, completely unaware of my inner turmoil. I sighed. I was a very special sort of weird. I turned my attention back to my book. While the takeoff was fairly smooth, the rocking of the plane and the dark, quiet space actually made me a little dizzy again, and I wondered if I really was coming down with some strain of bacteria that affected the inner ear. Stupid airport lettuce.
With the stranger distracted by magazine articles about abdominal workouts that would change his life, I traveled through Dante’s rings of hell with the aid of the weak overhead light. After twenty minutes or so, I got tired of the weird, dizzy sensation intermittently flashing through my head and set my book aside.
“Not quite the beach-read romp you were promised?” the stranger asked.
I looked up to find him staring at me again, intently, on the edge of attempted smoldering. And when I didn’t respond, he tipped over that edge into full smolder, and I scooted back in my seat. He seemed surprised by this and leaned forward. Maybe he thought I didn’t have a close enough view of his cheekbones? Was this the sort of thing that normally got him a response from women? Was he one of those guys who flirted with everything that moved because he was trying to score by the laws of probability?
Forgetting every lesson my mother had ever drilled into my head about good manners and eye contact, I gave him the full-on “disapproving professor” face I’d learned as a teaching assistant.
He was not fazed.
He did, however, get distracted by a child’s truck, a toy left over from a previous flight, rolling down the aisle toward the cockpit. (And, coincidentally, that didn’t make me feel much better about the cleanliness of the plane.) Wait, toward the cockpit? The plane’s nose seemed to be tipping downward. I checked my watch. We were only twenty-five minutes into the flight, which was too early to be starting our descent into the Hollow. I exchanged a glance with my handsome seatmate, who was frowning. Hard.
A metallic crunching noise sounded from the front of the plane, catching our attention. After flipping a few switches and hitting some buttons, Ernie the pilot yanked what looked like an important lever from the control panel and stuck it into his shirt pocket. And then he took a heavy rubber mallet from his laptop bag and began swinging it wildly at the panel. He got up from his seat, snagging what looked like a backpack from the copilot’s chair. The stranger and I sat completely still as Ernie eyed him warily.
“What the hell are you doing?” I demanded, as Ernie the Suddenly Destructive Pilot slipped the backpack on and clipped the straps over his thick middle. Some instinct had me reaching for the strap of my tote bag, winding it around my wrist. The plane continued to descend at a smooth, steady pace. “Get back to the controls!”
“I don’t want to hurt you. The Kelleys just want the package you’re carrying. I know it’s not in your suitcase. I checked at the baggage screening,” Ernie told me, raising his hands and reaching toward my lap.
I unbuckled my seatbelt and scrambled back in my seat, jamming my back against the wall. The invasion of space had me grabbing at my bag to feel for the little canister of pepper spray I usually kept clipped to the strap. Of course, that little canister was not currently clipped in place, because that’s the sort of chemical agent the TSA frowned on bringing through security. If I lived through this, I was going to write them a long letter.
I clutched the bag to my chest like a newborn. Why was Ernie doing this? How did he know what I had in my bag? Who were the Kelleys? Hell, how did he manage to get into my suitcase? And what sort of person could bribe a pilot to commandeer a (admittedly underpopulated) commercial flight?
Another wave of dizziness hit me, full-force this time, and I had to fight to keep my mind on my mind-numbing terror. This was it. This was the worst-case scenario. The pilot was abandoning the airplane while trying to mug me. I ran through all of the transportation studies I’d read on flight safety and crisis management to try to come up with some sort of solution to this . . . and nothing. I had nothing. None of them covered purse-snatching, plane-abandoning pilots.
Shrugging off the heavy, sleepy weight that dragged at the corners of my brain, I took a deep breath. OK. I would handle this one problem at a time.
Problem one, no one was flying the plane. And Ernie—whom I was absolutely correct in not trusting, yay for me—appeared to have broken off something important from the control panel, which probably rendered the plane unflyable. So, I could draw the conclusion that Ernie was a horrible person and that he had no plans to land the plane. So I seemed to be screwed on that front.
Problem two, Ernie was trying to snatch my bag. All of the personal safety guides I’d read said you should hand your purse over if you’re being mugged. It would be easier just to hand him my bag. It isn’t worth dying for. I might as well let him have it, a soft voice that didn’t sound entirely like mine whispered inside my head. It isn’t worth dying for.
I could feel my arms lift, my hands unwinding the strap from my wrist. Suddenly, a loud, shrill warning beep sounded from the controls. I whipped my head toward it just as the plane dropped suddenly, throwing me against the seat in front of me. I hissed as Ernie bent and tried to yank the bag away, dragging my strap-ringed arm with him
I was going to die. Whether I handed the bag over or not, the plane was going to crash with me on it.
A heretofore unknown spark of anger fired in my belly. I’d been entrusted to take care of Jane Jameson-Nightengale’s package. Jane was a high-ranking member of the local World Council for the Equal Treatment of the Undead. She’d trusted me with Council business. She expected me to take care of the package for her, to deliver it safely. She was paying me a handsome sum to do so. And this pilot was trying to take it from me, to kill me for it. He’d put me in a terrifying, no-win situation to intimidate me into handing it over.
This was bullshit.
That little spark burned into a full-blown stubborn flame, and I wrapped the leather bag strap around my wrist even tighter.
I wasn’t going to give it up. I couldn’t do anything about the plane crashing, but I could keep Jane’s package from falling into clearly unscrupulous hands. As much as we both loved books, I was sure Jane would rather see it destroyed than dropped into the hands of people willing to kill for it.
Moving with more speed than would be expected in a man of his girth, Ernie yanked at my bag again. But the strap around my wrist wouldn’t give. I tugged back on it with all my might, praying that the leather would hold. All the while, the stranger sat completely still, staring at Ernie.
“Are you kidding me?” I yelped as I swung my bag back and smacked Ernie with all my strength. The bag landed broadside against his face, and the impact knocked him back a step. The plane listed, and he lost his balance, rolling into the aisle on his back.
I could not believe that worked.
Ernie pushed to his feet and pulled something from his waistband. A knife, with a strange black blade that looked like one of those expensive ceramic kitchen knives you get at Bed Bath & Beyond. This was definitely the Beyond.
“I didn’t want to have to do this,” he said, tossing the knife between his hands with the sort of ease that made me think he had some experience with blades. “I just wanted to take the bag without hurting you. But if you’re going to be a bitch about it . . .”
Cue more threatening knife gestures. Ernie advanced on me. I glanced down at the tray table and wondered if I could rip it loose and use it as a weapon. Stupid TSA regulations against sharp objects that could be used as weapons. I would kill for a pair of tweezers right now.
“Well, since I’m going down anyway, I guess I’m going to be a bitch about it,” I shot back.
Even as Ernie advanced, the stranger stared at us, motionless, that same strange cloudy quality leaching into his eyes.
“Are you going to help me at all here?” I yelled.
When the man didn’t move, even as Ernie jabbed the knife forward, I took it as a no. With the blade coming toward my face at an alarming rate, I threw the bag behind me and yanked off the cushion from a nearby seat, shoving it toward him with both hands. The cushion cover split, and the blade sliced through the upholstery between my hands, the tip stopping a scant few inches from my eye.
It worked as a flotation device and a shield.
Ernie pulled back, trying to rip the blade from the cushion, but the hilt was stuck in the fabric. I tugged it toward me, careful not to stab myself in the face, and swung the cushion up, striking Ernie’s temple with the butt of the knife handle. Clutching at his face, he stumbled back with a yelp, giving me time to wrench the knife free of the cushion.
And still, the stranger didn’t move.
“Really?” I barked at him. “You are a useless human being!”
Ernie growled like an angry junkyard dog, hunching over as if he planned to rush me. I held the knife in both hands, the tip shaking as I pointed it at him. Because nothing said “badass prepared to defend herself” like a wobbling knife sandwiched between two sweaty palms.
The plane dove and pitched, making my stomach lurch. Ernie’s gaze switched back and forth between the trembling blade and my eyes. And given the smug expression on his face, I didn’t think he saw me as a threat. He stepped forward, and I clenched my fingers around the handle.
I gritted my teeth, my voice barely audible as I whimpered. “Please, don’t make me do this.”
The stranger finally stood, growling, and I shrieked in shock at the flash of vicious-looking fangs, throwing my arms in front of my face, a stupid thing to do when holding a great big blade. I dropped the knife, throwing myself back into the row of seats. The knife skidded down the carpeted aisle, toward Ernie, who scooped it up and pointed it at us.
Also, point of fact, my chatty, cowardly travel companion was a vampire.
With the vampire blocking the aisle, I slid behind him and reached for my bag. Ernie backed away and, as the safety card instructed, moved swiftly toward the emergency exit.
“Get back to the controls!” I cried, as Ernie’s hand closed around the red door handle and pulled up. The door burst open, and the pressure in the cabin changed dramatically. It tugged at my ears, making them pop.
“What are you doing?” Ernie yelled, though it sounded less like a challenge and more like . . . whining? I couldn’t tell if he was talking to me or the vampire. He glared at us, as if we’d disappointed him somehow. Frankly, I was disappointed that the pilot was not in his seat, flying the fricking plane, so I guessed we were even.
The vampire turned, gave me a long head-to-toe once-over, and angled his body so he was wedged between Ernie and me. He bared his fangs and gave a loud roar that, had he been facing me, probably would have resulted in me crying in the fetal position on the floor. Ernie just rolled his eyes, flipped the vampire the middle finger, and leaped backward out of the plane.
I pushed past the vampire and looked out the side window, watching as a small white parachute opened up beneath us.
“The pilot jumped out of the plane,” I said, staring out the window.
“Yes, he did,” the vampire observed. Though he sounded more annoyed than paralyzed with fear.
“Why did the pilot jump out of the plane?”
“Because the windows don’t open?” he suggested.
I whipped my head toward him and gave him a withering glare. He shrugged. The plane continued to descend, and I stepped around the vampire, looking for more parachutes. I found none.
“Damn it!” I grumbled. I scurried to the front of the plane, where lots of loud noises and flashing colored lights could distract me from the quickly approaching ground. I reached for something that looked like a radio, but I couldn’t seem to get a signal or sound from it. I lifted the receiver and saw that the cord leading from the handheld device to the controls had been neatly clipped. And the lever that Ernie had snapped off? It seemed to have been attached to the control marked “Flaps,” so I couldn’t slow the plane’s descent. In fact, there seemed to be a lot of buttons and levers missing. Exactly how many pieces had Ernie broken?
“Damn it!” I yelled again, the sound of the wind whipping through the cabin nearly drowning out my voice. I turned to the vampire, who was standing motionless in the aisle. “I don’t suppose you’re a pilot or an airplane mechanic?”
Hesitant, he shook his head. “No.”
I rolled my eyes and pushed past him to sit in a seat near the open emergency door. I closed the seatbelt around my waist and cinched it as tight as possible, even as my hands shook.
“What are you doing?” the vampire asked, as I kept my tote clutched to my chest. Despite the fact that the NTSB strongly urged against trying to hold on to luggage while trying to escape a wrecked plane, I was going to cling to it like a lifeline. I’d worked to keep that bag. I’d be damned if I’d let it get thrown loose from my corpse now.
“Preparing for the crash. You should strap in, too. Ninety-five percent of people involved in plane crashes survive, but buckling your seatbelt and sitting close to an emergency exit up your chances,” I told him, clearly aware that I was babbling. But so far, I’d managed not to break down into hysterical tears, despite pants-wetting terror, so I thought I deserved a bit of a babble. “When we hit the ground, the first ninety seconds are important. Most people end up sustaining injuries in the postcrash fire, which is probably more worrisome to you than to me, since you’re . . . uh, highly flammable.”
The vampire clearly did not appreciate my advice, giving me what I could only describe as a full-body eye roll.
“I’m trying to help you survive what happens when our plane hits the ground in the next couple of minutes!” I told him.
“We are not going to crash!”
“Tell that to the ground rushing at us!” I yelled, pointing out the window.
The vampire huffed, yanked at my seatbelt buckle, and popped it loose.
“What are you doing!” I screeched, smacking at his hands. He took hold of both of my wrists and dragged me out of my seat.
I could hear a consistent, quiet slap slap slap against the belly of the plane and realized that it was tree branches. We were so close to the ground that tree branches were smacking against the plane.
“I need to get back into my seat!” I yelled at him.
“Put your arms around my neck,” he said, hauling me against him.
Even through the panic, I couldn’t help but notice how easily I fit against his solid, muscled frame. That was inconveniently timed.
“Put your arms around my neck, and hold on,” he repeated, wrapping my arms around said neck.
“What?” I gasped, snapping out of my hands-on ogling. “Why?”
“We’re going to jump,” he said, leading me toward the open door.
“No!” I yelled. “Are you crazy! No!”
I didn’t know of any survival statistics for people who leaped out of crashing airplanes without parachutes, but they couldn’t be good.
“It will be fine,” he grunted, as we inched nearer to the open door, the wind plucking at our clothes and blowing my dark hair over my face.
“Vampires can’t fly! I’ve looked into it!” I insisted, trying to wedge my feet against the seats so he couldn’t move me.
“Come on, woman!”
“No!” I yelled, scrambling over his shoulder so I could dig my fingernails into the seats. “This is insane! You are insane!”
The vampire grabbed my hips and dragged me down the length of his chest, wrapping my long legs around his waist. He secured me against him with his left hand while he clutched my chin in the other. “It’s going to be fine,” he promised.
“I don’t want to jump out of the plane,” I told him.
“OK,” he said.
I breathed a sigh of relief. “Really?”
He nodded, tightening his grip around my waist. “I’ll do the jumping.”
And with that, he took a running start out the door and leaped from the plane.
“You asshooooooOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOLE!” I screamed, as we cleared the door and dropped into nothingness. Over the vampire’s shoulder, I could see the underbelly of the plane shrink in the distance. The wind tore at my clothes, whipping my hair over my face and around the vampire’s.
I squeezed my eyes shut. Time moved at a snail’s speed as we plunged through empty space. I heard everything and nothing all at once. My life didn’t flash before my eyes, but dozens of questions streamed through my brain. How long would we fall? How much would it hurt to hit the ground? Didn’t people black out from fear in situations like this? I would love to black out from fear right now. Using some sort of midair rolling maneuver, the vampire turned us so that he was under me. But I was too busy burying my face against his neck to appreciate his chivalrous, impact-absorbing gesture. I squeezed him even tighter, squealing in terror. I heard him wheeze in protest, but if these were my last moments before crashing into the ground, I wanted him to know that I was displeased with his decision to fling me out of a plane without my permission. My bag flapped loose, the leather slapping viciously against my side as we plummeted.
So very, very displeased.
I felt him tense under me, and I braced myself for the impact. But instead of splatting against the ground, we landed in cold black water with a tsunami-sized splash. The shock of the impact made me want to gasp, but the vampire clapped his hand over my nose and mouth to keep me from sucking in water. I was able to keep hold of my bag as we sank. I fought, and I clawed, but he clutched me close. For a second, I thought he was going to hold me under, drown me before swimming to the surface himself. But after a few seconds, the bubbles cleared, my eyes adjusted, and I could see him clearly.
He was frowning at me through the water, but it was a concerned frown, as if he was worried about the fact that he was probably drowning me. Between the adrenaline burnout and the cold submersion and the repeated potential for death, my body started to shut down. I was so tired, as if my limbs were made of lead. My lungs burned with the need to draw another breath. I wriggled, trying to get loose from the vampire’s grip. He stopped staring at me and blinked rapidly, as if coming out of a fog.
I pushed harder at his chest, kicking toward the surface of the water. He nodded slightly and loosened his grip, his hand sliding over my breasts to grip me under the arms. He dragged me up until my head broke through the water and I was able to draw air. I was not ashamed of the loud, ragged gasps as I sucked in oxygen.
In the distance, I could see flames where the plane had crashed into trees on the far side of the lake. There was no way we would have survived that. The vampire had just saved my life. I shuddered, imagining what I had just escaped, my body smashed against the interior of the plane, possibly burning to death if I survived long enough.
I’d never thought I’d survive a situation like that. Despite my near-constant preparation for the worst possible outcome, I’d always considered myself fate’s cannon fodder. I always figured I’d be occupying the first building hit by the world-ending asteroid, among the first wave of people infected by the next great plague. I never considered that I might survive.
What was I going to do now?
Also, this water smelled like dirt and rotting fish. Were there fish? Was Kentucky the sort of place where they had those giant catfish that could drown grown men? What sort of bacterial scum was floating on the surface? Was I going to get a nice case of pinkeye on top of everything el— Ow!
In the process of treading water, the vampire had elbowed me in the eye. The hell?
The vampire turned toward me, grinning, as if he expected me to congratulate him on tossing me out of a plane and giving me a shiner. “Well, that worked out better than I hoped.”
“You asshole!” I howled, and swung at him. The motion dragged my purse out of the water and slung it at his face. I couldn’t help it. My brain was fried by the constant cycle of terror, and the only response I had left was fury.
“Ow!” he yelped, sinking for a moment as he clutched at the side of his head, while I swam for the nearest shore. “That’s a fine thank-you for someone who just saved your life.”
“You threw me out of a plane!” I paused my swimming to kick at him, splashing water in his face.
“To save your life,” he repeated, emphasizing each syllable with a slicing stroke through the water.
“I know. I’m still trying to process my hysterical panic!” I shouted back, grabbing my purse strap when it nearly floated off my shoulder.
“What is it with you?” he demanded. “Why was the pilot trying to take that bag from you? Who the hell are you, woman?”
“I’m nobody!” I swore, as the bag strap dragged at my arm and my stroke faltered. My face dropped into the water, and the vampire slid his hand across my chest, under my bicep, pulling me along with him.
“Pilots don’t decide to mug passengers and then abandon their planes for nobodies,” the vampire told me. “Now, what’s in the bag?”
“He was crazy!” I yelled. “Airline employees get sick of dealing with obnoxious passengers. Combine that with deep vein thrombosis and the long-term effects of pressurized cabins and they lose it. You read about it in the news all the time.”
“You really don’t,” he told me.
I treaded water, working to keep my face in a neutral expression. “We’ve got to get out of the water. Hypothermia could set in,” I said, taking advantage of my overlarge eyes to convey Disney-princess innocence.
He stared at me, his brown eyes reflecting the light of the moon above us as he examined my face for a few awkward moments.
“Come on,” he said, sighing, slinging one arm around his chest and pulling me against him while he kicked toward shore. My unusually long legs and arms made me a good swimmer, able to cover long distances in the water with little effort. But he wasn’t even letting me try, and frankly, it was pissing me off.
“Would you stop yanking me around like a rag doll?” I grumbled, though I had to admit that we were making much better progress without my aquatic flailings. My arms and legs didn’t seem to be getting the right messages from my brain.
“Well, if you would just cooperate, I wouldn’t have to yank you around,” he growled into my ear. As he bobbed in the water, his mouth inadvertently brushed against the back of my neck, sending a shiver down my spine that had nothing to do with water temperature. “Did you have to dig your claws into me like that?”
“Yeah, I protest when someone tries to drag me out of a plane. What an unreasonable wench I am,” I shot back.
“Tell that to the gouge marks in my shoulders.”
“They’ll heal,” I muttered.
“But my shirt won’t. It’s like you’re half-wolverine,” he told me, as my feet hit the muddy bottom of the lake. I stumbled, trying to get footing on the slick surface. I’d dressed sensibly for a flight, canvas ballet flats, jeans, a tank top, and a cardigan. I’d wanted shoes I could wear through the security gate without struggling to get them back on. And frankly, it was a miracle they’d stayed on my feet during our impromptu skydive-slash-swim. But they were not much help in the “finding purchase in swamp mud” department.
My feet slipped out from under me, and I dropped under the water again. He pulled me up by my arms as we staggered onto solid ground.
“Is this going to be a thing?” I asked him. “This constant grabbing and dragging? And don’t think I didn’t notice the underwater breast graze.”
“Yeah, I accidentally brushed against your chest while saving your life, taking the impact for you when we jumped out of a plane into a lake. What an unreasonable jerk I am.”
I’d just reached knee-deep water when I turned on him and slung my wet hair out of my face. “You lingered.”
“You flatter yourself,” he told me.
“Look, I am not interested in whatever you’re selling. So you can just keep this weird, flirtatious, ‘oh, silly female, I’m not really flirting with you, I’m just naturally gregarious and charming’ thing that I’m sure works on those girls you neg at the blood bar, and cut it out.”
“We just survived a plane crash, and this is the moment you want to tell me that? And I don’t bother with girls at the blood bar. At least, not in the last year or so—and you know what, I wasn’t even trying to flirt with you!”
“Good. Because it wouldn’t work.”
“Oh, if I tried, it would work,” he insisted, smirking at me.
And for a second, I was sincerely concerned that it would work. Because that smirk was chock-full of dangerous, manipulative potential, and I was a mere human who would have to refer to a calendar to remember the last time I’d had sex.
A pregnant silence hung between us for a few seconds before I added, “And it’s not like we dropped some huge distance. It was maybe a hundred yards.” I stumbled but righted myself before he had to save me from another face-plant. “An airborne skydiving rescue it was not.”
“Speaking as the man sandwiched between you and the water, I can tell you it felt like more.”
I made an absolutely foul face at him as I unzipped my purse. I’d sealed the package in two airtight plastic bags and closed the outer bag with wax. But there was always the chance that it could leak, or that the bag could have ruptured when we fell out of the freaking plane. I blew out a relieved breath when I saw the bag was intact. The interior of the package was dry and untouched.
“What are you doing?” he asked. “I think your makeup is a loss at this point.”
Breathing deeply, I fished my hand through my sodden bag. “My phone is in here,” I lied easily. “I was going to try to call 911 or the airline’s customer-service complaint line or someone who could maybe fish us out of this godforsaken nowhere.”
“I hate to break it to you, sweetheart, but if your phone is still in there, it’s a paperweight. The water has probably fried it.”
I fished my cell out of the bottom of my purse—which still had several inches of water standing in it—and saw that he was right. My phone was completely soaked, because I’d failed to close the little charger port on my protective phone cover. Damn it. My wallet, paperback, and watch were also soaked through. I supposed the only blessing was that I’d decided to leave my laptop at home instead of bringing it with me. Otherwise, years of research would have been lost.
As I searched through the ruins of my bag, my stomach sank with the realization of exactly how unprepared I was for this situation. If I’d known we were going to be dropping into the wilderness, I would have brought my trusty Swiss Army knife, some waterproof matches, a first-aid kit, water-purifying tablets—most of the emergency supplies I kept handy in my “apocalypse closet.”
Unfortunately, airport security frowned on matches and Swiss Army knives almost as much as they did pepper spray, so it was a moot point. The closest thing I had to survival supplies was a granola bar I’d purchased on the flight from Atlanta to Louisville. Thanks to the miracle of modern packaging, it hadn’t been smashed when we landed in the lake.
If only I’d thought to put my phone in the sealed plastic bag. It would have made texting more difficult, but my phone might have lived.
“How about yours?” I asked, dumping the excess water out of my purse.
He pulled his phone out of his back pocket and showed me the waterlogged, fractured screen. “I seem to have landed on it. Along with an unnamed and ungrateful person.”
“Pardon me for not being overflowing with gratitude for you tossing me out of a plane! Now, what are your skills?”
He arched an eyebrow. “Beg pardon?”
“Your skills. You vampires all have these deep, dark wells of mysterious capability, with your shadowy origins and the ‘oh, I could tell you how I learned to count cards and read Welsh upside down, but I would have to kill you’ thing. Plus, most of you have a special vampire talent. So what can you do to help get us out of here? Because I have to tell you, the closest thing I have to outdoorsmanship is carrying a Swiss Army knife, which I couldn’t even take through the airport with me. So what are your skills?”
“Do I look like a mountain man?” he asked, gesturing to his well-tailored, though obviously dirty and rumpled, clothes.
“I am just as out of my element as you are.”
“Where the hell are we?” I scanned the shore. Trees. All I could see were trees moving in the gentle summer breeze. No city lights in the distance. No water towers helpfully labeled with the local township’s name. Nothing.
I flopped down on my butt on the sandy patch of grass near the muddy shore. I was stranded in the middle of the Kentucky backwoods, with no phone, no transportation, and no idea how to get to civilization. The rest of my anxiety meds were burning in my suitcase on the plane, because I didn’t trust myself not to take too many if I packed them in my tote bag. And I was trapped in the bluegrass version of Deliverance. With a vampire.
Worst. Case. Scenario.