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Authors: Cindy Dees

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“Five minutes to target,” Archer announced in a businesslike tone. He got busy on the radio talking to the film’s DP—the director of photography—and she turned her attention to her camera.

She pulled her viewfinder in front of her face once more. Beside her right knee, a small joystick remotely moved her camera on its nose mount outside. She tested it carefully, and it responded like a charm. Tall stands of pines skimmed past as the helicopter raced across the mountainous Northern California landscape toward the site of today’s shoot. The crew had spent all morning wiring the pyrotechnics and explosions, and it had taken most of the afternoon to position all the tanks, personnel carriers and extras dressed as soldiers. Which was why the director, Adrian Turnow, was having to race to get in this shot before they lost their light.

As it was, she had to adjust the light aperture to capture more of the late-afternoon sun’s lingering rays. The quality of the light out here was extraordinary, though. The sky was a deep cerulean blue, the trees a rich, lush evergreen with gray and blue undertones. And the mountains themselves, the northern end of the Sierras northwest of Lake Tahoe, were dark and forbidding, a few even topped with caps of snow. So stark and majestic. She’d love to photograph them sometime.

The helicopter slowed, topped a ridge, and hovered at the head of a long, narrow valley. Its granite walls were silvery gray, the valley floor a carpet of green. Cattle had grazed this valley for long enough that the trees were mostly gone. It made for a perfect movie battlefield, level and open with sweeping views.

“You good to go?” Archer asked her.

“Yup,” she muttered, her eyes glued to her viewfinder. She’d gone over computer simulations of this valley with the DP and the ground camera crew, and she’d chair-flown filming this sequence in her head a hundred times, but seeing it in the flesh was still different. And once the tracers and fake missiles started firing, all bets were off. It would be up to her to see and adapt to capture the best possible shot on film. The footage she shot today would likely determine whether or not she continued to work on this project.

Adrian Turnow’s voice came over her headset. “I’m turning over control of the shoot to Steve Prescott, head stunt coordinator. Whenever you’re ready, Steve.”

She listened as Prescott got thumbs-ups over the radio from a dozen stuntmen and explosives operators. He was the ex–Marine officer who’d set up this combat scene to be as realistic as possible. And then he started checking off the cameras. Finally, he announced, “Heli-cam?”

“Ready,” she replied as snappily as her knocking knees and trembling hands would allow.

“On my mark, everyone,” Prescott ordered. “Three. Two. One. Go for explosion one.” His orders came hard and fast as wave after wave of gunfire, tanks rolling, soldiers charging on foot, fake missiles, tracer rounds and who knew what else was put into motion. Hundreds of actors, extras and stunt coordinators launched into the complicated ballet that was a big action scene. A dozen cameras rolled, catching the action from every conceivable angle.

Prescott’s voice came on again. “Archer, start your run on my mark. Three. Two. One. Go.”

Beside her, Archer slammed the throttles forward and shoved Minerva’s nose down. The helicopter swooped down into the valley in a stomach-dropping dive that threw the bird at the treetops with dizzying speed.

She felt Archer tense beside her, but her concentration was riveted on her viewfinder.
Wow.
All hell had broken loose before her. So much was going on she wouldn’t have known where to point her camera had they not gone over it carefully in the simulations. She chanted the sequence in her head.
Pan left slowly, zoom fast to the line of soldiers charging. Tank explosion. Hard bank right by the helicopter...

“You’re supposed to bank right,” she mumbled to Archer.

“I’m trying,” he ground out.

A tracer whizzed by wicked close, and although she jerked in surprise, she doggedly held her camera steady. The projectile streaked by dramatically, leaving a trail of sparks and smoke that the helicopter blasted through. That was going to look
awesome
on film. Good call by Archer to delay the turn.

They were on top of the action now, and deafening explosions rocked the helicopter. Hard to believe these were fake charges. She couldn’t imagine what the real deal must be like. Hell on earth if she had to guess. Her camera mount had inertial stabilizers built into it, so her shot remained steady in spite of the concussions slamming into Minerva.

“Time to turn, Archer,” she called out loudly enough to be heard over the war zone outside.

Columns of smoke rose around them and Archer dropped the bird even lower, skimming across the ground barely above the grass. They buzzed a line of extras dressed as soldiers low enough that some of them hit the dirt in fear of getting brained by the helicopter’s skids. The grunt’s-eye view from her camera was unplanned, but amazing. She went with it, panning across the field of fire and zooming toward the enemy line as Archer raced toward it.

Something exploded directly in front of them, rocking the helicopter violently. They weren’t supposed to get that close to any pyrotechnics! She lifted her face from her viewfinder to glance over at Archer. “You need to pull up higher and turn the helicopter,” she said distinctly. “All I’m going to be shooting in a minute is dirt.”

He didn’t in any way acknowledge her. His concentration was one hundred percent on flying. He looked to be fighting hard with the helicopter controls. Was that normal? She knew pilots tended to be fit, muscular guys. Was this why? His jaw was clenched and his knuckles were white on the controls. As well they should be. Minerva was tearing along only feet above the ground.

“Archer?”

No response.

She glanced outside, and the end of the valley was coming up. Fast.
Damned
fast. A sheer granite cliff rose in front of them.

“Archer!”

Nada.

“Hey! What’s going on?” She slapped him on the upper arm to get his attention. But it was as if he was on another planet. He ignored her completely. She let go of her camera controls and tried to turn in her seat, but the tight harness stopped her. She ripped at the belt buckle frantically, but to no avail. She was strapped in tight. The mountain loomed directly ahead, and it was getting bigger by the second. She could make out individual trees racing toward them. They were going to slam into the cliff in a few seconds!

“Help me pull,” he grunted.

Shocked, she grabbed the stick between her knees and pulled back on it. It moved a bit as Archer pulled on it, too.


Harder, Marley.
We’re going to
die
.”

Panic slammed into her as full realization of how much trouble they were in finally registered. Something was wrong with the helicopter, and if they couldn’t turn it in the next few seconds, they were going to crash head-on into that cliff.

She stood on the rudder pedals and pulled for all she was worth on the stick, straining every bit as hard as Archer. It wasn’t working. Frantic, she started shaking the stick side to side in a desperate effort to break it loose.

The stick gave way all of a sudden, slamming her back into her seat so hard she hit her head on the cockpit wall. Archer flung Minerva into a violent turn that slammed Marley against her door next.

The bird banked up onto its side, and all she saw in her windscreen was granite and more granite. They were so close to the cliff that she saw individual clumps of grass clinging to its face. Frankly, she was amazed the skids didn’t scrape the rocks as it turned. The helicopter shuddered as Archer hauled it around, creaking under the strain. He gave a tug back on the throttle, and it moved easily, slowing the bird’s breakneck speed.

As quickly as the crisis had come, it passed. The helicopter flew forward sedately as if nothing had ever happened.

She became aware of somebody shouting in her ears. Steve Prescott. “What the hell was that, Archer? Report to me when you land.” She winced. Archer’s boss sounded
pissed
.

“Copy,” Archer replied tersely.

Silence, broken only by the steady thwacking of the rotor blades, filled the cockpit. Archer was as pale as snow in the seat beside her in stark contrast to his black leather jacket.

“Are we okay?” she asked in a small voice.

“You tell me,” came the grim reply. He flew low and slow back up the valley toward the airport.

She took stock of the current situation. They were alive. The bird seemed to be responding to normal control inputs. Archer’s knuckles were no longer white. That was all good, right? “What happened back there?”

“Did you get your film?”

“I got a few of the planned shots. Then you went off course.”

His jaw rippled as if he was clenching it, and damned if it wasn’t one of the sexiest things she’d ever seen.

Stay on point, Marley. You want to know what just happened and why you nearly died just now. You’re not drooling over the pretty pilot.

“Can you review your footage right now?” he asked. “Those digital cameras have instant playback, right?”

Confused, she jammed her face to the viewfinder and watched the raw footage she’d captured in their wild ride down the valley at weed height. The images looked about like she’d expected for the first part. The boys in postproduction would need to push the light a little in editing, but that was no biggie. And then the footage got interesting. The tracer ripped past. The trail of sparks looked as great as she’d thought it would. And the perspective from so low, moving so fast, was gripping.

And that violent pull-up at the end—the camera had continued to run while they’d fought to break the controls free from whatever frozen state they’d gotten stuck in—was outrageous. Any director worth his salt would be orgasmic over it. Adrian Turnow was all about being as realistic as possible. He was going to
love
this stuff.

Feeling a little surly that her near-death had resulted in such spectacular footage, and unreasonably ticked off at Archer for getting footage that she would never have gotten herself, she admitted, “Yeah, I got my film.”

“All right, then. Let’s go home.”

She didn’t like that he was blowing off the fact that they’d nearly died mere moments ago. Shouldn’t he be upset? Freaking out at least a little? But he was acting like it was just another day at the office. Like this kind of stuff happened to him all the time.

Well, it
didn’t
happen to her all the time. And she didn’t like it one bit. He’d scared the living hell out of her back there. The least he could do was apologize or offer her some explanation of what had just happened. But nope. He just flew along, looking around outside and every now and then glancing over at her like they hadn’t just nearly splattered like bugs on a windshield.

The ride back to the airport was dead quiet. Plenty of time for her to consider how flipping close she had just come to dying. A second or two at most. Had the stick not broken loose and Archer managed to haul the helicopter into that violent turn like he had, they’d have crashed into the side of that mountain for sure. Had she not helped pull, not shaken the stick in panic like she had, she couldn’t bear to think about what would have happened.

By the time Archer set Minerva down gently, Marley’s entire body was shaking. Adrenaline surged through her and she felt as though she could flap her arms and fly all by herself. As scared as she’d been before, this aftermath was weirdly exhilarating. She was
alive
. Gloriously, vividly so. Now that she wasn’t roadkill on a mountain, she supposed it might be described as exciting in retrospect. But she’d about peed her pants when it was happening.

She didn’t know what the hell had happened back there in that valley, but she knew one thing. She’d never done anything that intense in her entire life.

Never again would she listen to the crew’s war stories about near-misses with disaster the same way. Having experienced near-death up close and personal, now she would hear the harrowing reality behind their tales told laughingly over cold beers. These pilots were crazy!

The door beside her opened. Archer reached for her lap. But she looked up at him and made eye contact for the first time since he’d nearly killed them both. His stare was dark. Turbulent. Suspicious, even. Shouldn’t he be apologizing to her in some way for nearly killing her? Shouldn’t she be the one staring accusingly at him? Perplexed at his wary distrust, she moved restlessly beneath the confining seat belts. Trapped. She felt trapped.

Maybe he wasn’t as unaffected by their almost-disaster as he was letting on. Maybe the suspicion bit was just him covering up his own reaction to nearly dying. It wasn’t like she’d had anything to do with the damned helicopter refusing to turn.

His hand stilled, nestled in the junction of her thighs, as his gaze shifted. Heated with fiery intensity as she stared up at him. His stare scorched parts of her that were not at all used to scorching. And all of a sudden any thought of suspicion flew right out of her head.

“Admit it,” he murmured low and rough, “you liked that a little.”

That was nuts. No sane person enjoyed cheating death. Or was he right? The rush of heat between her legs, the hot pulse throbbing there, said he was. She tingled to the tips of her fingers and ends of her hair. Felt restless. Hungry. Alive.

Shocked, she examined this rush of new feelings more closely. Sought out their source. And reeled mentally when it dawned on her that she was attracted to her death-defying pilot.

So this was lust, huh? She finally saw what all the fuss was about.

Chapter 2

A
rcher couldn’t have lifted his hand away from Marley in that moment if a dozen men tried to drag him away from her. She probably wasn’t aware of it, but her hips were pulsing lightly against his knuckles, and it was so sexy he could barely breathe. His male parts abruptly swelled hard and painful enough that he had trouble standing upright.

Man, that had been a close call back there. What the hell had happened to his aircraft? He’d never seen a complete flight-control failure like that. The collective—the stick that steered the bird—and the throttle were two completely separate pieces of equipment, not related to each other in any way. It was simply not possible that a single mechanical issue had caused both systems to freeze up simultaneously.

Which left only one glaringly obvious possibility. Sabotage.

When Steve had called and asked him to come home on emergency leave, to help figure out what the hell was going on with a string of accidents around the movie set, he’d thought the guy had finally given in to his paranoid tendencies. Apparently not.

Marley shifted restlessly beneath his hand, her body radiating the heat and taut energy of a turned-on woman.

His throbbing erection blessedly distracted him from the alarming directions his thoughts were headed and he was glad to let it. It didn’t help matters that she was staring at him as though he was some kind of conquering hero. Her lips were parted and moist, her pupils dilated so big he could hardly see their bright blue color. Hell, he could
smell
the lust on her, sweet and needy.

Was she seriously a virgin? The thought riveted him. Not that he was the kind of sleazeball who ran around looking for virgins to debauch. Actually, he liked his women experienced. Worldly. The kind who knew the score and didn’t expect commitment or the whole emotional-involvement thing. The kind who wouldn’t freak out when he loved ’em and left ’em. He’d learned very early in life how bad it hurt to be the one left behind and not the one doing the leaving.

But damn. A virgin. She had to be, what? Midtwenties? Who, in this day and age, hadn’t had sex by that age? He examined her closely. She wasn’t wearing a stitch of makeup, but she was still a pretty girl. Really pretty, in fact.

She had that whole old-school, movie-star glamour thing going. Bedroom eyes. Lush lips. Not to mention she had soft, creamy skin and curly blond hair pulled back into a short ponytail. Kinda looked like a poodle tail, but it was cute. Seriously, those big blue eyes of hers made a guy want to dive into them and go for a swim.

Abruptly, she seemed to shake herself out of her sexual trance and batted ineffectually at his hand. Bemused, he stepped back and let her unlatch her seat belt. She stumbled on the skid in her haste to get out of the helicopter, though, and staggered forward. He caught her up against him.

Her belly slammed into his zipper, and she couldn’t fail to feel the gigantic erection straining against the denim. Her eyes went wide and her fair skin blushed bright pink. Yup, she’d noticed his hard-on.

“Easy, there, Grace,” he muttered.

She was as light as a bird in his arms. He’d registered her as being reasonably tall the first time he’d seen her. But in fact, she barely reached his nose. Must be the mile-long legs in tight jeans that had given him the false impression. His heavy leather jacket prevented him from feeling her breasts smashed against him, but the view as he looked down the V-neck of her T-shirt was compensation enough. Marley Stringer was stacked.

“I’m such a klutz,” she mumbled self-consciously.

“I’m pretty sure Minerva tripped you. She’s the jealous type, you know.”

Marley smiled up at him a little and his heart did something strange in his chest.

“Archer! My office. Now.” Steve Prescott’s voice carried clearly across the ramp, low and hard.

“Been nice knowin’ ya,” he muttered to Marley.

“You think he’ll fire you?” she asked, her expression dismayed.

“Hell, yeah.
I’d
fire me.” He had to act like just one of the guys—not a special operator brought in to find and stop whoever was causing accident after accident on the movie set. Film crews were among the most superstitious of all professions, and if the problems didn’t get resolved soon, this film—heck, the whole studio—was in serious jeopardy.

Frankly, the timing of Steve’s private call for help couldn’t have come at a better time for him. He was on sixty days’ forced leave from his unit overseas—thirty days of regular leave and thirty extra days of medically directed leave by his unit’s flight surgeon.

If he had to sit at home staring at his toes all that time, he was going to lose his mind...or do something really dumb. Last thing he needed to do was actively tank his career. Or his life.

Besides, it wasn’t like he really believed that there was a saboteur running around a movie set trying to kill people. It was a
movie, for crying out loud
. Not real life. It certainly wasn’t anything like the war zones he’d been operating in for the past decade. Now those were places where people were overtly out to kill a guy.

But this—he looked around the quiet airfield with its orderly rows of toy airplanes, all neatly tied down and waiting for their wealthy owners to come play—this was not the kind of place that harbored dangerous killers.

Maybe he should consider retiring. Stunt flying in the movies. It was a sweet gig, after all. The pay was great, and the wild flying was every chopper jock’s dream.

Nah. He was an adrenaline junkie at heart. Truth be told, he got turned on by being shot at. By cheating death.

He took off walking toward the hangar where Steve’s on-set office was located.

The good news was that it would take almost his whole two months of leave to do the movie shoot. God knew, he could use the distraction. He’d been more relieved that he cared to admit when Steve had called to ask for his help.

“I’m coming with you,” the girl declared, falling into step beside him.

His gut twisted unpleasantly. Was she inserting herself into this confrontation to find out if anyone suspected a saboteur yet, perhaps?

Aloud, he asked, “Why? You like having your butt handed to you in a sling?

“No, but I’m still coming.”

It wasn’t like he could stop her from trailing along beside him to Prescott’s office. Hell, maybe her presence would tone down the epic ass-chewing he was about to receive—for the benefit of the plentiful mechanics and crew hanging around in the hangar, no doubt to eavesdrop on the reaming Steve was about to lay on him. The one thing more distinctive about movie crews than their superstition was their love of gossip. They were veritable hotbeds of it. And Steve was no dummy. He would know full well that this conversation would, in effect, have an audience.

The two of them would talk more tonight. In private. But for now, for public consumption, he was in big trouble.

The idea behind today’s change of flight crew/camera operator matchup had been to test Marley. To see if she would actually go up in his helicopter with him. They’d gotten an anonymous tip that Archer would be targeted today.

And Steve’s investigation to date had uncovered that she had been seen in the vicinity of every one of the half dozen near-disasters the movie had experienced so far. She was the only crew member who had been. As unlikely a saboteur as she seemed at a glance, the facts all pointed at her.

Today’s plan had never included actually taking her up flying with him, particularly since she’d been seen fooling around near this bird earlier this morning.

Steve was going to be rip-snorting mad that Archer had had an impulse to go through with the flight, to see if she would actually put her neck on the line. His logic had been that no sane saboteurs put themselves into a position to die, after all. He’d assumed that, since she was willing to go up with him, she either wasn’t the saboteur or knew his helicopter was not tampered with.
Wrongo, buddy.

What the hell had happened to his bird back there, anyway? Steve was sure to ask, and he didn’t have a clue. He’d headed down that valley, the explosions had started and the next thing he knew, none of his flight controls were functional. There hadn’t been any noises like something had broken. The helicopter hadn’t lurched as if something related to the flight controls had given way. Nothing had hit the aircraft to his knowledge.

Frankly, he was eager to tear into the guts of the bird and figure out exactly what
had
happened. He’d gotten an aircraft mechanic’s license in his spare time a few years back that helped him to converse with his maintenance crews intelligently and diagnose and deal with mechanical problems while airborne. But he’d never even heard of something like this, let alone seen it.

How in the hell did Marley know to shake the stick from side to side like that to break loose whatever was obstructing its movement? Was she the saboteur, after all? If so, why would she cut it that close? He’d barely managed to turn the bird in the nick of time. Were he one iota less strong or less quick in his reflexes, the two of them would have died in a blazing fireball against that cliff. His rotor blades hadn’t missed the mountain by more than a few feet.

All of a sudden, he became aware of his legs feeling weak as he walked to the back of the hangar. His knees were shaky, and his whole body felt like a rag doll’s. And he was thirsty. So thirsty that it was abruptly all he could think about. Startled, he put a name to his symptoms.

Shock.
He was in mild shock. Jeez, that had been close. The adrenaline that had gotten him home in an unnaturally calm, hyperaware mental state deserted him all at once, leaving him wrung out and wobbly as hell. His breathing was too fast, his pulse too shallow, as he opened the door to Steve’s office and ushered Marley inside.

No surprise, Prescott didn’t offer him a seat when he stepped into the ex-Marine’s office. Aww, hell. Theater though this might be, this was gonna suck.

Archer stood at attention out of habit, not that he’d often stood at attention to get reamed out during his military career, which had been exemplary to date.

Prescott asked grimly, but with admirable restraint, “Care to tell me what happened out there?”

Archer glanced at Steve to see which one of them Prescott was addressing—him or Marley.
Him.
Yup, Steve was planning to keep up the charade of acting like she wasn’t a suspect.

Too bad he had no idea how to answer Steve’s question. He opened his mouth with the intent to say something brief like “No excuse, sir” or “Lemme tear apart the bird and I’ll get back to you,” but Marley dived in before he could get a single word out.

“He just did what I asked him to. When I saw the combat unfolding, I saw an opportunity to push the shot and get a more extreme perspective on the battle. The footage I got is spectacular. I’m so grateful he followed my instructions to the letter.”

Archer didn’t know if his jaw or Prescott’s fell open farther. What the hell was she doing? He didn’t need her to take the fall for him like this. Steve wouldn’t actually fire him. After all, he was here at Steve’s request to help the guy with an urgent problem. And Steve couldn’t fire her. She wasn’t in his chain of command. She worked for the director of photography, not the stunt crew.

Glaring at her, Archer bit out, “I take full responsibility for going off our flight plan and off course, sir. She had nothing to do with...”

Marley interrupted, “If Mr. Turnow doesn’t love the footage we got,
I’ll
take full responsibility for it.”

Prescott looked back and forth between the two of them suspiciously. Archer knew better than most just how smart a man Steve Prescott was. And the guy smelled a rat. He thought Marley Stringer
was
behind the near-crash.

Thing was, he wasn’t about to talk openly with Steve about the mechanical failure in front of her. For now, his hands were tied. They had to fake out Marley and pretend the flight control failure wasn’t out of the ordinary. That no one was thinking about sabotage.

“Archer, if you ever pull a crazy stunt like that again, regardless of what your camera operator asks you to do, I’ll fire you so fast your head spins. You got that?”

Wow. Steve had really mastered that whole quiet, menacingly restrained thing since the last time they’d been together. In his younger days, Steve would have yelled his head off. Archer sincerely hoped Marley was taking note and figuring out that now would be a good time to lie low for a while and cut out the shenanigans.

The ex-Marine growled, “Get out of my office. I’ll take this up with Adrian. He can decide what to do with you two mavericks.”

Marley opened her mouth to say something—whether an apology or more arguments on his behalf, Archer couldn’t tell. But he recognized all too well the tight set of Steve’s jaw. It was time to make like the wind and blow. He gripped Marley by the elbow and hustled her out of Prescott’s office in spite of her protests.

He hauled her all the way out of the hangar and out of their boss’s earshot before turning her loose and demanding, “Why did you leap to my defense and not tell him what really happened? What the hell was that?”

“That was me saving your ass,” she snapped.

“But— Why?” If she was the saboteur, why didn’t she let him take the hit for not finding the flight control problem before they took off? Wouldn’t it hurt the movie more to have a highly experienced pilot like him get fired? If she wasn’t the saboteur, he’d nearly
killed
her, for God’s sake.

One thing he did know, she’d been legitimately scared to death up there. He might have called her bluff, and she might have called his, but she understood full well just how close they’d both come to dying today.

“Give me just one reason why you covered my ass like that,” he demanded.

“I have no idea why I did it.” She gazed up at him, and she did, in fact, look genuinely perplexed. Almost as perplexed as he was. He shoved a hand through his short hair.

“The footage I shot really is phenomenal,” she offered. “Adrian Turnow’s going to go nuts over it. It’s one of a kind.”

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