Read High-Stakes Playboy Online
Authors: Cindy Dees
But men had died out there. Men who’d been counting on him to pull them out. To get them to hospitals. He’d lost troops before. Been through the ringer of dealing with guilt and grief. They were kids, mostly. With their whole lives ahead of him. Sure, he knew they’d volunteered to be out there. He knew that his government, not he, had sent them into that war zone. That he, too, was just a schmuck doing a job. If not him, some other warm body would have been out there that night and gotten shot down.
In some ways, he was glad it had been him who’d taken that rocket through his engine and not one of his less experienced fellow pilots. At least he hadn’t panicked under fire. Had gotten off those last, critical radio calls as he fell out of the sky that had brought help, and lots of it, when it had finally shown up.
But still. The guilt would have its due.
The flight surgeon had been right to send him home for a while. To give him time to work through the inevitable aftereffects of a mission gone south.
south. South Pole south.
At least he’d met Marley out of this rotation stateside.
To say he gave Minerva a detailed preflight would be the understatement of the century. If his life and Marley’s were on the line today, he was going to make damned sure both of them came home from this flight in one piece. He examined every square inch of the helicopter, opened every panel, looked in every nook and cranny where anyone could possibly stick a device, cut a wire, fray a connector or otherwise set up his bird for a problem of any kind.
He was conflicted about today’s flight. On the one hand, he was desperate for any excuse to be with Marley. And tucked together in the close quarters of his aircraft, where he got to display the other thing he was really, really good at doing, was very appealing.
But on the other hand, he was terrified that she would reveal herself to be the saboteur in some way. It wasn’t so much that he was worried for his own safety. He just desperately wanted her to be as innocent as she seemed, to be every bit as sweet and naive for real as his gut shouted at him that she was.
He sighed and climbed into Minerva to wait for Marley to arrive. Until they took off, he would not leave the helicopter again. He wasn’t taking any chances with someone messing with his aircraft.
He spotted her the second she emerged from behind the hangar. She was wearing tight jeans and a pale pink oxford shirt, with a jaunty red scarf tied around her neck. Those oversize sunglasses made her look like a movie starlet straight out of the 1950s. A bunch of the guys had commented on how much she looked like Marilyn Monroe, and he saw the resemblance. She had the same sex-kitten vibe, too.
He jumped out of Minerva to go around and open the passenger door for her. “Hey, beautiful,” he murmured as he helped her climb up into the seat. He reached for the seat belts and buckled her in like he had the first time they flew together. And this time he had no compunction about overtly stroking her breasts with the backs of his knuckles. Her inhaled breath was even sharper this time, the dilation of her eyes wider.
“You ready to fly with me?” he murmured, smiling a little.
“You have no idea,” she muttered back.
His grin widened as he tugged her lap belt tight. He knew precisely how turned on she was. He was in the exact same state of anticipation. The good news was that she didn’t seem at all scarred by their first sexual encounter. He’d successfully hidden the fact that he didn’t remember how it had ended. Thank God. The last thing he would ever want to do was hurt her in any way.
She sat quietly through the preflight sequence and checked over her camera as he got clearance to lift off.
“Here we go,” he announced to her as he eased back on the stick. There was something magical about taking off. About leaving behind the earth and gravity to enter the realm of birds and gods.
It was a beautiful morning. The sky was brilliant blue, the mountains shining gold as the aspens declared fall to be in full swing. He headed for the head of the valley, just like last time. Except today, they would approach the fake town and hover next to it, filming, as airplanes made mock bombing runs past it. His job was merely to park in position and hold a steady hover.
Truth be told, a decent hover was harder than it looked. Depending on wind and turbulence, hovering could be a bitch. But he was no amateur and would give Marley a perfectly still platform for her camera.
Steve counted down the various flying sequences over the radio, and fighter jets hired from a reserve military base not far away came streaking down the valley toward them.
“Whoa,” Marley breathed as her lens caught the incoming birds. “They’re really moving.”
He snorted. “They’re only going a few hundred miles per hour. You ought to see them when they come in supersonic. They streak past so fast you barely register them before they’re gone.”
She went silent, face plastered to her viewfinder, her concentration complete. He glanced over from time to time at her as she panned her camera across the town. A little frown puckered her brow, and even that was sexy. The helicopter floated a little and Marley made a small sound of protest.
He settled Minerva and glued his gaze to his controls and to the line of mountains outside that he was using as a horizontal reference point.
Steve’s voice came over his headset. “Trigger the first explosion in three...two...one...”
An almighty blast exploded practically beneath them. The windshield filled with a wall of flames and smoke as the flight controls ripped out of his hands. This was not good. Not good at all.
arley screamed as the entire mock city blew up all at once in a spectacular fireball in her face that slammed the helicopter on its side and blew it back violently from its previous position.
Archer swore in a tense, continuous stream beside her as he fought to regain control of the helicopter. She sat still in frozen horror, doing everything in her power not to distract him while he tried to save them both from crashing into the midst of the fireball in front of them
“Report!” Steve was shouting into the radios. “By the numbers!”
The various aircraft parked around the burning set each reported their status tersely in numerical order. When his turn came, Archer bit out, “Heli Four unharmed.”
“Are we really okay?” Marley asked in a voice that quavered in spite of her best efforts to control it.
“Yup.” She didn’t ask for any more information as his hands raced over the controls and he flipped through the checklists strapped to his thigh. It looked as though he was running a series of diagnostic tests on the aircraft’s systems to make sure Minerva was, in fact, okay. The good news was they were low and slow. If they crashed from this height, she suspected they might actually stand a chance of walking away, if not unharmed, at least alive.
“Everybody return to base,” Steve Prescott ordered tersely.
With a dozen aircraft to recover to one runway, it took a while for the air traffic controller to sequence the faster fixed-wing planes first for landing, and then the slower ones. The helicopters were brought in last. But finally, Archer set Minerva down in her assigned parking space and shut her down.
He looked over at Marley and she stared back at him. He was as white as a sheet. She would bet it was not often that he was so overtly shook up. “Why the pale face?” she asked in a small voice. “We’re fine. Right?”
“Yeah. We’re good,” he answered gruffly. “That was just a flipping close call. I’ve never come that close to getting sucked into a fireball before. We nearly didn’t make it clear of the blast.”
It took a few seconds for her pucker factor to subside enough to ask him, “What happened back there?”
“My guess is something went wrong with the wiring of the explosions. There were supposed to be about forty separate, small blasts, but it appeared that they all detonated at once.”
“It sure was spectacular.”
He snorted. “That’s a word for it. Let’s hope you camera folks got usable footage out of it.”
Startled, she glanced down at her camera. It was still running, in spite of nearly being incinerated back there. She hadn’t even thought about shooting the explosion; frankly, she’d been much more concerned with the whole concept of not dying.
“I have no idea what my lens captured. Whatever it was pointed at, I guess.”
Archer commented, “Rebuilding that city and blowing it up again would cost an arm and a leg. And this film’s in trouble already.”
She looked over at him sharply. “How’s that?”
He winced. “I’m just saying. There’ve been a lot of accidents on this film. And each one costs money.”
She’d heard a few rumors that Serendipity Studios had invested every cent it had in the making of this film. If that was true, the failure of this film could spell disaster for the young studio.
Archer glanced over at her with casual relaxation that could not possibly look more fake if he tried.
“They wouldn’t shut the movie down, would they?” she asked in alarm.
“Nah. Adrian Turnow believes in this film, and I’m sure his investors do, too. They’ll get it made regardless of any obstacles thrown in their path.”
“I sure hope so. He’s a nice man. Talented director. And on a purely personal note, it’s my first movie. I’d hate to have my entrée to cinematography fail so spectacularly that I can’t even use it on my résumé. I need this film if I’m to get other jobs in the business.”
Archer looked thoughtful in response to her comment. “We’d better head inside. Steve’s going to want to see your footage right away.”
“To see if he can spot exactly what happened out there.”
Of course. It made perfect sense. She was still too rattled by the experience to be thinking on all cylinders. “I’m sure all he’s going to see is a giant explosion. Although maybe a frame-by-frame playback will show him a daisy chain of the charges setting one another off or something.”
The other camera operators had all had the same idea and congregated in Steve’s office to share their playbacks with him directly. Ultimately, the super-slow-motion playbacks from each camera showed the exact same thing. All the charges detonated simultaneously. Which meant something had definitely gone wrong with the wiring of the various triggers or their sequencers.
She caught Steve Prescott trading grim looks with Archer, but then the head stunt coordinator thanked everyone quietly and asked them to leave. She was shuffled out of the office along with the herd of other cinematographers and pilots and lost sight of Archer.
Stunned and appalled, she wandered around the airplane hangars, waiting for Archer to leave his boss’s office.
Why did stuff like this happen to her all the time? Even as a kid, she’d had terrible luck. Any time a boy showed an interest in her, something bad inevitably happened to him. Any time she tried a new hobby or sport, same deal. Disaster struck. Only when she was with Mina did things seem to go all right.
The two of them had been inseparable as kids. They’d been lucky that the foster-care system had found them a long-term family that would take in both girls as a pair. Their foster parents had been an older couple of modest means, but with giant hearts and plenty of love. Marley still considered them her parents and spent holidays with them and stayed in close touch. She doubted that Mina stayed in touch with them. She’d been a rebellious teen to say the least and there’d been a ton of friction between them and Mina.
She’d really hoped when she left Chicago that the curse would not follow her, but it most definitely had found her in California.
Maybe she should quit this job. Take herself and her jinx as far away from here as she could. Although her heart rebelled at the idea of leaving Archer when the two of them were just finding each other. She wasn’t delusional, was she, to think that something special was developing between them?
She might not be the queen of relationship experience, but he seemed as attracted to her as she was to him. Not that she had any idea what he saw in her. Sure, she cleaned up pretty well and even did a credible Marilyn Monroe–throwback look. But there was more to it than that. Archer seemed to genuinely like her and be concerned about her.
For her part, she didn’t know if she was more fascinated by his attractiveness and sex appeal or his intelligence and humor. He completely filled her senses. He was all she could think about in her waking hours, and he was the beautiful specter she dreamed of in her sleeping hours.
And if she really cared about him, she would go far, far away from him and take her bad luck with her.
* * *
Steve dismissed the rest of the crew, but met Archer’s gaze and silently indicated that he should stick around. The room cleared until it was just the two of them. They might have had their issues as kids, but they were family, and family stuck together in a crisis.
“Take a ride with me, little brother.”
They jumped in Steve’s Jeep and went out to the site of the explosion, which firemen were just finishing extinguishing. They were spraying a few desultory hot spots here and there that still smoked.
Steve had a word with the fire marshal, who pointed them toward a man in a jacket, standing off to one side. Jacket Guy introduced himself as the arson specialist for the local fire department.
“What have we got?” Steve asked. “Is it arson?”
The guy grinned. “Well, yeah. This set was definitely blown up intentionally. The question is, did it blow up the way you meant for it to, or did someone tamper with the manner in which it was exploded?”
Steve huffed and Archer grinned behind his brother’s back.
“And?” Steve demanded.
“Come with me,” the investigator said. They picked their way around smoking debris to the western edge of the mock-up. “Take a look at this wiring and tell me if this is how your guys wired the charges.”
Steve crouched to look at a jumble of wires tangled on the ground at his feet. “Here. And here. These splices aren’t ours.”
The arson investigator knelt beside Steve, pulled out a digital camera and started snapping pictures. The guy eventually announced, “There’s your answer, then. Someone came in and redid your wiring prior to detonation.”
“Sonofabitch,” Steve swore quietly. He glanced up at Archer. “Marley was out here yesterday afternoon for several hours, shooting stills.”
His stomach plummeted to the vicinity of his shoelaces. It couldn’t be her. It just couldn’t! “So were a couple of other cameramen,” Archer snapped back.
The arson investigator moved away, which was just as well, for Steve muttered, “I’m gonna have to let her go. I’m sorry, bro.”
“You have no proof!” Desperate, he added, “She’s a union worker. You fire her without cause, and the Cinematographer’s Guild will be all over you.”
Steve scowled at him. “We both know why you’re defending her. You want in her panties. Quit thinking with your crotch for just one minute, will you?”
“You’ve convicted her in your mind because you’re so desperate to find a culprit you’ll latch on to the first convenient suspect to come along. Get your head out of your ass, bro. I know you’re under huge pressure to stop the accidents, but don’t throw Marley under the bus while the real saboteur gets away.”
Steve exhaled hard. “Let’s pretend for a moment that you’re right. Who in the hell would do all this crap to us?”
“Look to the studio’s enemies. To Adrian Turnow’s enemies.” Even to his own ears, he sounded desperate, like he was reaching for straws.
“This studio is under brand-new ownership. They haven’t had time to piss off anyone. This is only their second film.”
“This is Hollywood. Everyone has haters. Jealousy runs rampant in this town, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
Steve sighed. “My fiancée’s a famous actress, in case you forgot. I’m well aware of the jealousy and the nut balls this town attracts.”
“Do me a favor. Dig hard into Marley’s past. Drill down all the way. Financials, past employers, hell, check out her love life. Intrude into every corner of her life. If you still believe she’s the saboteur after you’re done investigating her, I won’t argue if you want to fire her.”
“First, I’ve got to go talk to Adrian and Jackson. Explain to them what happened.” He shoved a distracted hand through his hair. “God, I hope the camera crew got some usable footage out of this disaster.”
“It looked pretty spectacular from up close to the blast. Hell, we were practically inside the fireball.”
Steve just shook his head as they climbed in the Jeep and headed back to his office. To his credit, he did call his private investigator and quietly instruct the guy to find out
about Marley Stringer by whatever means necessary. Archer felt bad asking his brother to invade her privacy like this, but he had to do
to clear her name.
When they got back to the airport that was the stunt crew’s base of operations, Archer prowled the hangars restlessly. There had to be some way to prove she was innocent. Some piece of overlooked evidence that would point at the real saboteur...
He felt her presence before he saw her. All of a sudden, awareness skittered across the back of his neck. He whipped around, and there was Marley, silhouetted in the big hangar door, watching him, all soft, sexy curves and lush red lips and sassy blond curls. He smiled intimately at her, and she smiled shyly back. No way in hell was she that good an actress. No way.
“You ready to head back to the motel?” he asked her.
“Yes. Are you perchance offering a girl a ride?”
“Perchance I am.”
“Then I accept.” Her smile was more flirtatious this time, and his stomach clenched in a tight knot of pleasure at the idea of getting to spend more time with her. Man, he had it bad for this girl.
Bad enough that she had blinded him to her true nature?
Sobered, he installed her in the passenger seat of his truck and started down out of the mountains. The drive back to the motel was pretty, with winding roads that occasionally opened up into breathtaking vistas out across the coastal plain.
They were approaching one such stretch of open road, going around a tight hairpin turn that a fast-moving SUV pulled up right on his tail. The road straightened out, the trees thinned and the mountainside dropped away precipitously beyond the low guard rail. The SUV pulled out to pass him, and Archer shook his head, touching his brakes.
Crazy California driver.
Without warning, the SUV swerved hard toward his truck. His quick reflexes were probably all that saved him and Marley from going over the cliff. He steered hard into the SUV with his truck, meeting the collision with momentum of his own. The truck and the SUV weighed close to the same amount, so although the crunch of metal on metal was sickening, the SUV didn’t succeed at driving him off the road.
“Oh, my God!” Marley cried out. He ignored her, grimly concentrating on the crazy bastard in the other vehicle.
The SUV swerved away and then slammed back into him again, but he was ready for it this time. He slammed on his brakes just as the SUV came toward him. The other vehicle shot ahead of his truck and nearly went over the guardrail itself as the driver’s hard swerve toward the precipice was no longer impeded by his truck.
With a screech of tires as the vehicle fishtailed violently, the other driver managed to save the SUV, straighten out the vehicle and accelerate away from them. Archer tried to catch the license-plate number, but it was covered in a layer of mud and impossible to read as the car sped away.
He briefly considered giving chase, but one glance at Marley’s white-faced horror was enough to dissuade him from pursuing his attacker. Slowing to a stop, he pulled over at the side of the road to have a look at the damage to his truck.