Excerpt: Barefoot Beach
The new plane Theia Lawson piloted flew like a dream. A good thing since her passengers were a nightmare.
She winced at the muffled sound of stampeding little feet and shrieking laughter coming through the cockpit door and her noise-reducing aviation headset. She wondered why she hadn’t anticipated the drama that would result from transporting Penelope Gallagher, her two mischievous twin boys, and Penelope’s half sister, Daphne, who’d exhibited all the signs of a fearful flyer, to Harmony Harbor.
No, Theia thought at the crash and bang that practically rattled the seven-passenger Cessna Citation, she shouldn’t be surprised there would be drama with members of the Gallagher family onboard.She’d come to know the sisters’ father, Daniel Gallagher, pretty well last fall. The man was adept at causing drama wherever he went. Obviously, he’d passed the talent on to his progeny.
The noise level in the cabin decreased exponentially when a measured baritone leveled instructions to settle down and return to their seats in a firm, commanding tone. Theia’s boss and best friend, Caine Elliot, had assumed the role of flight-attendant-slash-co-pilot today. He rarely flew as anything other than her passenger, but he’d decided he needed to go undercover to better gauge the situation with the Gallagher girls.
Theia loved Caine like a brother. She credited him with saving her life and then giving her one far better than she deserved or expected after she’d quit the navy. He was kind and generous, brilliant when it came to business.
But he wasn’t the same fair-minded, moral man she knew and loved when it came to the Gallaghers of Harmony Harbor. She might not know a lot about business, but his dealings with the family seemed underhanded and vengeful, traits she’d never seen in Caine, though she’d unfortunately witnessed them in her dealings with his grandmother, Emily Green Elliot. Theia had as little as possible to do with the eighty-year-old tyrant who kept Wicklow Developments and her grandson firmly under her dictatorial thumb.
A conversation between another pilot and air traffic control drew Theia from her thoughts about the Elliot’s plot to wrest control of Greystone Manor from the Gallagher family. The pilot flying up ahead reported turbulence. There had been a chance of thunderstorms this morning, but she’d factored them in to her fight plan.
She glanced at the weather radar. There was no change in precipitation levels, but that didn’t rule out clear-weather turbulence. After activating the fasten your seat belt signs in the cabin, she pressed the comm button on the audio panel and spoke into the mic on her headset. “For your safety, please ensure your seat belts are fastened, as we may be entering an area of turbulence.”
She was about to ask Caine to do the same but doubted he’d hear her above the noise. It sounded like the three-year-olds were throwing a tantrum due to being restrained.
“Get hold of your demon spawn before they kick out a window and send us to a watery grave!” Daphne yelled.
Without warning, the remarks triggered a barrage of memories for Theia. A vise tightened around her chest, making it difficult to breathe. Sometimes that was all it took, just a throwaway remark or a simple sound. She held her breath for seven seconds and then pushed it out for eight. In and out until the tightness in her chest finally released.
Pushing the vestiges of murky memories from her mind, she muted the comm on the audio panel. She wasn’t backsliding. This was just a blip. Her PTSD was under control. She hadn’t had an episode in almost a year. Switching on her headset to talk to air traffic control, she requested permission to increase elevation.
Her gaze flicked to Caine as he entered the cockpit. She welcomed the grin that curved her lips at the sight of his disheveled dark hair and his untucked white shirt, the look of frustration etched on his handsome face. The Gallaghers had clearly tested the limits of her typically unflappable boss.
He took his place beside her. “Don’t even,” he muttered as he put on his headset.
She waited until the plane leveled off at the new altitude and she’d checked the radar to respond. “Bet you wish you’d listened to me and drove the Gallaghers to Harmony Harbor instead of flying them to their father’s deathbed. You’re a much better driver than you are a co-pilot. Plus, you look good in Harry’s uniform,” she said, referring to Caine’s personal driver.
“Yes, but I’d have to pay attention to the road. And as you so sweetly pointed out, you have no need of my services. This way, I can spend more time observing Penelope and Daphne.”
“How’s that working out for you?”
“Smartass,” he said without heat.
“So I take it Penelope and Daphne, like the rest of the Gallagher family, have bought into Daniel’s deathbed act?” She couldn’t believe they’d fallen for it the first time, let alone a second.
“They have, but I’m not convinced the soon-to-be-ex Mrs. Gallagher has. Tara won’t allow Daniel’s youngest, Clio, to fly over.” Tara and Clio lived in Ireland.
“Three daughters by three different wives. He’s quite the lad, our Daniel is,” Theia quipped, though she honestly wasn’t surprised. Daniel Gallagher was a handsome charmer who had a way with women.
Personally, she liked the man. He was interesting and engaging, and beneath his gregarious bravado, she’d caught a glimpse of a man who wasn’t as happy or as confident as he appeared, which she found kind of endearing. It didn’t mean she approved of what he was doing behind his family’s back. In her book, you were loyal to your family no matter what.
Even if that family included an uncle who could barely look at you now and cousins who’d tormented you growing up and hadn’t outgrown the habit. Her aunt loved her at least.
Thoughts of her family carried with it the memory of their last visit two and a half years before, days after the accident. Theia cleared her throat in an effort to get rid of the emotion the memories evoked.
“It’s probably a good thing there’s only two to deal with. From the little time I’ve spent with them, there doesn’t appear to be any love lost between Penelope and Daphne. I imagine throwing a third sister into the mix would make it that much worse,” she said, her voice huskier than usual.
“You’re probably right, but it would carry more weight if all three of them were here to demand their shares of the estate be sold immediately.”
She pressed her lips together to keep from voicing her disapproval of the plan. It was none of her business, and she had no intention of sticking her nose where it didn’t belong. She’d grown fond of the Gallaghers in the short time she’d stayed at the manor last fall, but she loved her job and couldn’t afford to lose it. Her salary was more than generous. Without it, she wouldn’t be able to make amends to the family who’d lost their husband and father because of
her, or to sleep at night, or live with the guilt of what she’d done. What she’d failed to do.
Besides, she considered Caine family. She owed her loyalty to him, not to the Gallaghers.
“I know how you feel about this, T, but you don’t know the entire story. Emily—” He broke off to stare straight ahead. “Trust me, I have good reasons for what I’m doing.”
She’d known all along that his grandmother was behind this, but she couldn’t call him out on it, could she? Emily was his family. And, like Theia, he believed you stuck by family no matter what. As far as she knew, his grandmother was the only family he had left. He was an adult orphan like her.
Actually, she wasn’t positive she was an orphan. She’d never known or met her father. Despite her mother dragging her to Ireland every summer to search for the man she’d proclaimed to be her grand passion, the love of her life.
Theia rolled her eyes. As far as she was concerned, romantic love caused more trouble than it was worth. Especially the head-over-heels kind. Or, as she thought of it, the kind of love that made you lose your mind. It wasn’t that she was against the whole marriage thing. She wanted a family. Eventually. She just didn’t have time for one now. Even if, at thirty-four, her biological clock was ticking so loudly it was getting hard to ignore.
But ignore it she did. She had a debt to pay. And until she’d paid it, she didn’t deserve to be happy. She scrubbed her hand over her face, refocusing on the job at hand.
“I’m sure you do have a good reason, Caine. But all I care about right now is that we’re flying back to New York at five like you promised.” She glanced at him. “We will be, won’t we?”
The sooner she was gone from Harmony Harbor the better. Pretending to be someone he wasn’t might not bother Caine, but it bothered her. A lot.
“You have a hot date you didn’t tell me about?”
“Okay. Relax. As far as I know, we’ll be leaving at five. I was a little busy trying to corral the terrors, so it was tough to get a read on how Daphne and Penelope feel about the Gallaghers and the manor. I got the impression they’re not overly fond of their father.”
Theia laughed. “The master of understatement. They hate the guy. Can you blame them? It sounds like once Daniel was done with the mother; he was done with the daughter.”
“Yeah, he’s not going to win Father of the Year. Which is why I suggested he tell Daphne and Penelope that he wants them to keep the estate in the family. Given how they feel about him, that should ensure they do the exact opposite. It works in our favor that they both could use an influx of cash. Penelope and her husband recently separated, and Daphne was on the losing end of her divorce settlement.”
Since Penelope was a marriage counselor and Daphne a divorce attorney, Theia could understand how their marital problems might affect their professional reputations and negatively impact their incomes. She imagined their careers of choice also added another layer of conflict to the sisters’ already difficult relationship. Still, she thought her boss might be forgetting one important detail.
“I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but you do realize that seven of Colleen Gallagher’s great-grandchildren are firmly in the Save Greystone Manor camp, right? And trust me, if you think the pushback from the Harmony Harbor Business Association to your Main Street development is tough, they have nothing on the Gallagher great-grandkids.”
“You hate to be a Debbie Downer?” Caine snorted a laugh. “T, you’re one of the most pessimistic people I know. But I appreciate you pointing out the possible snag. It’s one of the things I love most about you. Even when you don’t agree with me, you’re always looking out for my best interests. You’re the one person I can count on to tell me the truth.”
It hadn’t done her a lot of good in this instance. He had a blind spot when it came to the Gallaghers and the estate. He’d already found a loophole that would allow him to buy Penelope’s and Daphne’s shares. It was how he planned to get the other Gallaghers to sell that worried her.
Not my monkey, not my circus, she thought. Still, she couldn’t keep herself from saying, “Yeah, you can always count on me to tell you the truth. I just wish you’d listen to me now and again, especially when it comes to this. If you’re determined to go ahead with it, you have to handle every last detail. Big or small. You can’t allow your grandmother to get involved in any way. Look what happened two years ago.”
Theia had been new to Wicklow Developments and hadn’t been Caine’s trusted confidante at the time, but she’d heard what had happened when Emily had been running the show in Harmony Harbor. It was why Caine had asked Theia to go undercover at the manor last year.
“You don’t have to remind me. It’s not something I’m likely to forget.” Even if it wasn’t his fault, it was obvious Caine still felt guilty about not keeping a closer eye on what was going on in Harmony Harbor when a woman whom Emily had hired was murdered. Just not guilty enough to walk away from Greystone Manor. “It’s also the reason why—”
Whatever he was about to say was interrupted by chatter over the radio. They were in for a bumpy ride. Caine sighed and went to undo his seat belt. “You got this?”
“You’re kidding me, right?” It would take a lot more than a little turbulence and an incoming storm for her to require her co-pilot’s assistance.
“Can’t blame a guy for trying,” he said as he went to unfold his six-foot-four frame from the seat just as an alarm sounded. “What the—”
Theia scanned the panel for the problem, refusing to let the shrill beeping sound mess with her head. “Looks like our fearful flyer decided to calm her nerves with a cigarette. Better get her out of the bathroom before we hit turbulence.”
She wasn’t sure Caine heard her over the toddlers yelling fire and Penelope banging on what Theia assumed was the bathroom door. She didn’t bother giving her safety spiel over the comm. She’d let her flight attendant handle their passengers while she avoided the turbulence as best she could. She looked at the weather radar while talking to air traffic control, calculating their chances of making it to Harmony Harbor before the approaching storm.
Ten minutes later, they were through the worst of the turbulence. Better still, it sounded like Caine had calmed the nerves of all four Gallaghers.
She activated the comm, relaying to her passengers that they would be landing shortly and to please keep their seat belts fastened. She imagined Caine had already ensured that they did. Theia silently echoed Daphne’s cheer that they’d soon be landing. Not only would Theia be rid of her passengers shortly, but she was confident they’d beat the incoming storm. More important, according to the weather radar, the system would clear out before her departure time of five. She mouthed, Woo-hoo.
Caine entered the cockpit looking worse than he had before.
“Not your usual love bite,” she said with a nod at the teeth marks on his tanned forearm.
“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”
“No, I—” She broke off, frowning when someone began yelling in the cabin, and it wasn’t the terrors. Not the little ones at least. “Is she saying ‘fire’?”
Caine turned and ran. In his hurry, he forgot to close the cockpit door. Theia caught a glimpse of Penelope on her hands and knees in the aisle.
“What were you thinking, giving them your purse? You should have taken out the lighter!” she yelled at her sister while patting the carpet under the seat.
Theia’s mouth went dry. The threat was real. She’d assumed Penelope was being dramatic.
“I didn’t give it to him! H-he must have…Mon Dieu, we’re going to die!”
“No one is going to die. Out of the way, Penelope, and get the boys buckled,” Caine said, taking her place on the floor. Seconds later, he shot to his feet, his eyes meeting Theia’s as he rushed toward the cockpit.
“How bad?” she asked, hoping her hair hid the perspiration beading along her hairline.
He had to raise his voice to be heard over the twins, who were hysterically crying. “Can’t be sure, but better to err on the side of caution and have the fire department meet us on the tarmac.”
A tremor ran through her, and she gave him a jerky nod. She activated her comm, relaying the situation to air traffic control. Caine reached for the Halon extinguisher to the right of the co-pilot’s seat.
She glanced back at Daphne, who began her We’re going to die chant again. Her face was frozen in terror, her hands clutching the armrests in a straight-armed death grip.
“Stop it. Stop saying that! You’re scaring the boys,” Penelope screamed at her sister. Which seemed to work, at least on Daphne. But the twins instantly picked up where their aunt had left off, and then Theia heard the pounding of little feet and one of those brothers screaming, “Help! Save us!”
Some of Theia’s tension eased when Caine, who’d been having trouble getting the extinguisher to release, stood with it in his hand. But no sooner had he turned to head for the cabin than the little boy screaming for help burst into the cockpit, hurling himself at Caine’s legs and throwing him off-balance. All six feet four inches and two hundred and twenty pounds of Caine landed on Theia, slamming her forward. Her face smashed into the instrument panel, while her hands jammed against the controls. The plane banked sharply to the right.
“Theia!” Caine shouted as the momentum threw him off her.
She pushed herself upright, her vision blurring as she absorbed the sights and sounds around her. Caine was now on the floor, his feet anchored against the backs of the seats to keep the g-force from throwing him and the crying little boy he protected with his body around the cockpit. The twin’s brother, mother, and aunt were hysterical in the cabin.
Theia wiped away the moisture dripping into her eyes, surprised when her hand came away bloody. There wasn’t time to worry about her injury. The Cessna’s nose was down. They were going into a death spiral. She’d been in one before. They didn’t both make it out alive. The faces of Caine, the Gallagher sisters, and the little boys filled her mind. Everything inside her froze at the thought that they’d die on her watch.
“It’s not the engine. You’re good. You’ve got this.” Caine’s calm, confident voice penetrated the panic that held her in its icy grip, snapping her out of it.
She forced a grunt of agreement past her lips as she pulled the throttle back to idle and then brought the nose up. She squinted past the blood dripping into her eyes, trying to focus on the navigation equipment. A muffled cheer filled her ears, and then the voice of the air traffic controller. She flew the requested pattern with no problem, ensuring both she and the plane were fit to land.
Focused on proving that both she and the Cessna were good, Theia hadn’t noticed the quiet that had descended within the cabin. Caine must have gotten the little boy back to his seat the moment the plane leveled off. She glanced at the cockpit floor. There was no sign of blood, other than her own, but she needed to know everyone was okay, and whether the fire in the cabin was out. Instead of reminding her already traumatized passengers that they weren’t out of the woods yet, she activated and deactivated the seat belt sign a couple of times to get Caine’s attention. Hoping he’d be in a position to notice.
He practically burst through the cockpit door. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m good. How about you and the little guy?” She frowned at the expression on his face. “What is it? Is the kid not okay? The fire’s spread?” Her heart leaped to
“You’re hurt. You’re covered in blood. Dammit, T, this is on me. I should have shut the cockpit door. Made sure the kids were buckled in,” he said as he rooted around onehanded in the back pocket of the co-pilot’s seat. He must have found what he was looking for because he straightened, then leaned toward her.
“Caine, I’m good. I’m fine,” she said when he began gently cleaning the blood from her face.
Theia never let anyone know when she was hurting or scared. Even Caine, who was pretty much her closest friend in the world. She hadn’t told him about the almost incapacitating panic she’d dealt with when she first got back in the cockpit. After the accident, she thought she’d never fly again. If it weren’t for Caine, she probably wouldn’t have. But she’d never let on, never let her guard down, never let him see the crippling fear that would overtake her at the most unlikely of times.
Her uncle, the colonel, had taught Theia to never let anyone see her sweat or see her cry. To show any sign of vulnerability or weakness was to allow the enemy to see it too. Her male cousins had done a good job of beating the lessons into her, as had the navy. She’d learned to hide her emotions very, very well.
“The little guy, the fire, that’s what I’m concerned about.” She pushed his hand away. “Stop. I need to prepare for landing, and I need to know what we’re dealing with.”
He made a frustrated sound before he reached for his headset and took his place beside her. “Other than being terrified to leave his seat, the boy’s fine. I don’t think we have to worry about the rest of them either. I wish I could say the same about the fire. There’s no flame, but there is smoke. I can’t get the extinguisher to work. It must have gotten damaged when I dropped it. I soaked the area with water, but—”
“You think it’s under the floor.” She scanned the instrument panel, looking for signs they had an electrical fire onboard. She didn’t see anything so far. Although she did see signs of the incoming storm. The winds had started to pick up but not to a worrisome level. Visibility was still good. It wouldn’t be long before it wasn’t. She contacted the control tower while doing a quick prelanding check of the equipment. “Cessna Citation one three five, ready for
She didn’t have to state the runway. It was a municipal airport with only one runway, which could be tricky with crosswinds. She was okayed to land. Her heart pounded at the line of fire trucks and ambulances awaiting their arrival. She prayed they didn’t need them.
Her prayers were answered. As soon as they’d taxied to a stop, she unbuckled her seat belt and stood. She locked her shaky legs, fisted her trembling fingers, and gritted her teeth when a wave of dizziness washed over her.
“Get the Gallaghers off as quickly as possible and hold back the fire department. I want a chance to deal with this on my own.” The last thing she wanted was for them to tear her new baby apart for no reason.
“You need to get your head looked at. Let the professionals…All right.” Caine held up his hands and then grabbed his black uniform jacket off the back of the seat. Recovering his black hat from the floor, he fitted it on his head and pulled the brim low. “On this plane, you might be the boss, but I’m your boss on the ground. You’re getting checked out whether you like it or not.”
Theia rolled her eyes as she followed him out the cockpit door and then winced. Maybe she wouldn’t fight too hard when he demanded she let the paramedics look her over. She didn’t have to worry about him getting the Gallagher party off the plane immediately. They did that all on their own with murmured goodbyes.
No apologies or thanks for the ride, she noticed. Though she supposed she couldn’t blame them. She wasted less than a second thinking about the Gallaghers and moved to the seat where the little pyromaniac had been sitting. No sooner had Theia pulled back the carpet than she heard the clump of heavy boots in the aisle. She lifted her head to peek between the seats. A firefighter in full gear filled the space. She gave a panicked yelp at the sight of the hose in his hands and shot to her feet.
“It’s all right. I—” A blast of water knocked her on her butt.