The 737 climbs steeply, swiftly, vibrating like an unbalanced washing machine as metal meets atmosphere. The tense, blond man in the window seat, marks the sign of the cross. Once. Twice. Etching anodyne faith in the thin cabin air. He sighs heavily and leans back in the cramped seat, his long legs contorted at odd angles to his body. Los Angeles smolders below, a dusky oasis.
He breathes in. Out. Tries to calm his frenetic heart hammering in his chest. Dread anesthetizes his whole body. He flexes his frozen fingers to work some life back into them. He is tempted, in a kind of reverse blasphemy, to trace the cross one more time, to wake his numb hands. Maybe break into St. Vitus’ dance, too. That would surprise the perky flight attendants. At least he’s not trapped in the cavernous gut of a C-130, nose-to-nose with some taciturn, sweaty grunt.
Major Mac Armstrong’s dirty little secret? He hates to fly. His bulletproof physique and badass attitude keep soldiers in line, but on a plane, he feels like a new-born giraffe surrounded by hungry lions. Nothing but air molecules and hammered steel between his mortal body and the unforgiving ground. Fucking fear of flying.
“Hey,” says a honeyed voice near his left shoulder. “You okay?”
Mac shifts gingerly toward the aisle seat. There’s not much room in coach for a six-foot-two former college tight end. Then he wonders how he failed to notice her sitting next to him, a mere eight inches between his body and hers. Later, unable to sleep in yet another nondescript hotel with shitty art on the walls, in yet another anonymous town across from the Taco Bell, on yet another tedious training op, Mac will marvel at how oblivious he was to his surroundings on the airplane, to her.
The woman attached to the voice is a knockout. Slender, maybe five and a half feet. Long chestnut hair gleaming with streaks of caramel and butterscotch, like she’s spent time in the sun. Her eyes are walnut with flecks of gold and a faint shimmer of green flashing inside the iris like northern lights. Delicate crow’s feet promise to deepen enticingly and soft lips curve around small white teeth.
She’s beautiful, an aging surfer girl.
Mac is telegraphed by a hopeful ache in his groin that barks, Hey, soldier, you’re attracted to the babe in D-12! An elusive hint of warm cherries wafts from the woman’s hair. Mac is dizzy, whether from her fruity scent or her tawny skin or insufficient oxygen, he can’t tell.
“Are you okay?” she repeats, slowly and precisely as if she’s talking to a dull child or a stunned accident victim. “You just genuflected, twice. I assume that means you’re kind of freaking out?”
“Uh, what?” He stammers like an idiot. “Yeah. I’m okay. I think.”
“So you’re afraid to fly, huh?” she asks, head tilted, eyes dancing curiously.
He hesitates, nods. “Take offs still get to me. I fly a lot, but I just can’t get used to it.”
She offers her right hand. “I’m Callie. I’m not a fan of flying either.”
“Mac,” he replies, clasping her warmth. Her grip is surprisingly strong, and he likes how her petite fingers feel inside his.
“Nice to meet you, Mac. So, what is it you do that has you in the air so often?”
Mac hesitates. He realizes that out of uniform, he’s just another guy. He could be anybody. Callie has no clue he’s military, and he’s reluctant to tell her the truth no matter how gorgeous she is. Mac is fiercely private by nature and duty, and the ability to keep secrets makes him incredibly good at his job. She’s smiling at him and she smells delectable, like an ice cream sundae, all succulent fruit and melted sugar with a bit of crunch on top. Mac would like to lean over and lick Callie’s neck, maybe nibble her skin, and for a millisecond he is lost in the fantasy.
“Mac?” Her gentle query lures him back to reality.
He has another reason, too, for not responding: A family back home in Illinois, although he hasn’t seen them in weeks. He imagines Jill lounging on the comfy corduroy sofa with their son Toby, watching TV. Blackjack no doubt curled up on the floor in his usual spot resting his shaggy head on giant, muddy paws.
Mac glances out the window. They are miles east of LAX now, hurtling through anonymous airspace above the nation he serves. The terrain below is rusty brown, cracked into geometric puzzle pieces of parched soil. Green clumps of trees and shrubs dot the landscape here and there, testament to a water source.
Mac is suddenly bone-weary, depleted at his core; a spent casing buried in choking sand. Is it really only a month since Carlos and Brandy were KIA? Or “got” their damn selves killed as Colonel Vacek put it shortly before the inquiry into their deaths.
Right this moment, Mac does not feel like much of a soldier, much less any kind of war hero. In fact, he feels like the worst kind of failure, an officer who let his troops die in a hot, violent clash.
The Boeing has leveled off and no longer vibrates. It thrums like a giant industrial cocoon buffeted by a vigorous wind, like Mac’s pulse.
He turns to look at Callie. She gazes at him still, right eyebrow cocked, a tantalizing half-smile on her lips. She is lovely and solid and alive.
The war and his dead soldiers, Jill and Toby, are all so far away. In another time zone, another elevation, another life. He is here now, in this sealed capsule with a woman who smells like cherries and glows like the morning sun. What the hell, he thinks.
And words begin to tumble from Mac Armstrong’s mouth like rocks in a landslide.