THE DAY had been going so well until the tropical storm rolled in. David McIntyre had been getting some good work done for his boss, and he was able to indulge in one of his favorite pastimes—secretly ogling the hot pilot he’d hired to take him around the islands. All that changed in a flash when the skies turned black and lightning crackled in the heavy clouds. In a matter of minutes, they went from a pleasant afternoon in the air over the South Pacific to a life-or-death situation. And it was all David’s fault.
“What do you mean, we’re going down?” David’s voice rose in alarm. There was no hiding his fear, no pretending, even for a second, that he could handle it. Not, at least, without a whole bottle of Valium.
The cutthroat world of Hollywood moviemaking played for keeps. Only the strong survived. But this time the matter of his survival was literal. He had a right to be freaked-out. Planes were supposed to stay in the air. That was the whole reason he hired qualified pilots to take him to the remote areas he surveyed as part of his job. He wasn’t the heroic type. Long ago he’d given up acting in favor of being behind the scenes. Character roles were not his forte.
Ever since the storm first appeared on the horizon, streaking toward them with the lethal punch of an attacking pit bull, his pilot had done his best to steer them clear of it. David trusted Sutton. It was one of the reasons he made a point to use Sutton’s air service since he’d started scouting for new filming locations in the area. It was Sutton who’d said, “I don’t like the looks of that,” when the first dark cloud menaced the skies, and he’d radioed the airport to get more details. David had protested Sutton’s decision to cut the trip short and had wheedled him into taking a pass around at least one more atoll before heading back.
Now they were paying the price for that choice.
“I don’t understand,” David had complained when the wind had first begun buffeting the plane well ahead of the dark clouds. His knuckles had been white from his grip on the edges of his seat. “It’s a big sky. Can’t we just outrun it?”
Sutton had snorted. He was already fighting with the controls of the plane and had no time to spare a glance in David’s direction. “We’re too small to go above it, and it’s too big to go around. Not if we want to make it back to the airport, that is. We can stay in front of it, but without another airstrip for landing—” The plane dropped as though it had reached the top of a hill on a rollercoaster and had begun its descent. Three rapid heartbeats had passed before Sutton had been able to stabilize the plane again.
“Hang on.” His voice had been even more terse than usual. “I’m going to try to skate around the edge of it and hope we have enough fuel to get back to the barn.”
IF YOU’D asked David five hours earlier how to describe his life, he’d have said he was the luckiest man on the planet. He had a great job as a locations scout—touring exotic locales for a production company that specialized in finding the right scenery for the right price, no matter if you wanted to shoot an old-style Western, a Lord of the Rings clone, or a sci-fi movie set on Mars. His job meant lots of travel, which he enjoyed. He got to indulge in his hobby of photography, and he had plenty of time to work on his own projects. Not to mention, it gave him an “in” with the movers and shakers of Hollywood, which did more than just get him invited to some of the best parties in LA It also meant that people in the business took a personal interest in his projects. He didn’t plan to be a locations scout his entire career. One day he hoped to have a production company of his own—maybe even direct his own films.
With so many things going CGI these days, fewer films and television shows ever actually shot on location, so it wasn’t like he had a ton of job security anyway. Still, there would probably always be some holdouts who’d want the authentic feel of a location that only looked like the actual place they wanted to portray. And sometimes, if they wanted it to have the right light, the right atmosphere, only the right location would do. David still remembered a disastrous Shakespeare film that had been shot in an authentic location, but the harsh natural light had caused the entire cast to squint into the camera, aging most of the stars by at least ten years. Actors had a tendency to react badly to being made to look older than they really were. That’s the sort of thing a good locations scout should have caught.
Even so, there was a tendency for Hollywood to fall in love with a locale, like the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina or Toronto or all of Bulgaria, and trek like lemmings to the last place where the other guys had filmed a successful movie. Part of David’s job was to convince film studios not to copy everyone else. David had contacts in all those places—another important part of his job was securing housing and transportation on location as well—but this was the first time he’d been sent to Hawaii.
The best part of his current assignment had been the extended stay in order to meet the needs of several clients at once. He’d gone out originally to look for the background shots needed for a low-budget, big-chain-department-store-financed movie about a family vacation in Hawaii gone hilariously wrong. David had convinced the studio that two weeks of filming some establishing shots in Hawaii would allow them to shoot the rest of the film in Florida, as they had wanted to do from the beginning.
That might have been the end of it, but then his boss, Sebastian Zeleznik, had called and told him that one of the big studios was interested in filming the true story of a Navy sailor shipwrecked in the South Pacific during WWII. Since the author of the survival story had already had some major winners with previous novels turned into movies, Spirograph Productions had been glad to get the contract. Having a man on the spot had been the deciding factor.
Even better, the number one crime drama in America decided they wanted to shoot a Christmas-in-Hawaii episode, and David’s time was extended again. As a bonus, Zeleznik had mentioned David might as well see if he could find something that would double as a location for that Amelia Earhart movie that David’s friend Emma was hoping to produce.
A prolonged stay in one of the most beautiful places on Earth would have been grounds enough to celebrate, particularly when he was getting paid to spend time island-hopping, going to some of the most exotic places he’d ever traveled. Almost every trip was an experience in breathtaking scenery. Even if it was only down to the local beach. There was something so vibrant and fresh about Hawaii. Every picture he took had the vitality and tang of a succulent piece of pineapple straight out of the grove. David had thought about how he could use all the photographs and video he’d taken thus far. The fact that he was able to help Emma for free had added a little fillip of pleasure to his daily routine. Yeah. Life was good.
Each morning he’d taken his tablet down to the hotel’s open-air restaurant and checked his messages and the news while he indulged in the luscious fruits, finest coffee, and a breakfast to satisfy a king. Maybe the knowledge that he was doing a friend a favor added piquancy to his food. Maybe it was the colorful flowers and bright scenery, the panoramas and perspectives that just begged for him to take out his camera and snap a hundred pictures. He’d brought a thirty-two GB card, and each evening he came back to the hotel and uploaded two hundred or more pictures to an online drop box where his boss could see them. It doubled as a backup file. If anything happened to his camera, he wouldn’t lose everything he’d already shot for the entire trip. Each day was grounds enough for his ebullient mood.
Or maybe it was the fact he had an excuse to keep seeing Rick Sutton.
As crushes went, his thing for Sutton was both understandable and stupid. Understandable because David was a photographer at heart, and Rick Sutton was arguably one of the most photogenic men he’d ever met. David met a lot of incredibly good-looking people. One did in his business. Sutton, however, was the real deal. Unlike most of the men David met—and a few he’d dated—Sutton wasn’t trying to carefully cultivate a certain look. He just was that look. The first time David had walked into the hangar where Sutton ran his charter service, Sutton had stepped out from behind the plane, wiping his hands on a greasy rag. David could have sworn his jaw hit the floor like that of some cartoon rabbit. It would have been a simple matter to get Sutton half a dozen roles without even trying.
David could have cast him as an Indiana Jones type in unlimited adventure films, or as the world-weary private detective in a weekly drama. Sutton would have made the perfect drifter, the down-on-his-luck hero with a heart of gold, the newest video-game character turned into a movie. David envisioned him in a show where he was always on the move, helping a new set of people each week, but having no place and no one to call his own. He could have played an angel in a trench coat or the devil himself.
In the ensuing weeks, David had snuck as many pictures of Sutton as he could reasonably get away with. The camera loved him, or at least it did when David caught him unaware. Whenever Sutton noticed David pointing the camera at him, he’d frown, or his face would freeze into a weird, polite expression—the kind people used at parties when they didn’t like any of the guests. The elusiveness of the better photograph, along with the utter satisfaction when he captured Sutton on camera like some wild animal in the bush, had prompted David to stalk Sutton for the right time to snap a picture.
Like when the sunlight glinted off his nearly black hair, bringing out the warm brown within. Or when the ambient light changed the color of his storm-gray eyes. David had read somewhere that a lot of pilots had blue eyes. It didn’t matter if the theory was true or not. It felt true when he met Sutton.
He probably shouldn’t have started babbling those very thoughts to Sutton before they’d even shaken hands. Sutton had looked askance at him, said he wasn’t interested in being a movie star, and had asked if David wanted to fly or not. The plane was fueled and ready, and someone had to pay for it.
Which brought David around to the stupid part of his crush. Sutton was well-worn jeans, biker boots, and a blue-and-white-checked shirt washed so many times it was faded into comfortable anonymity. David was crisp khakis, a short-sleeved polo shirt by Ralph Lauren in emerald green, and shoes that cost a thousand dollars—which Sutton had taken exception to almost from the moment they’d met.
“You have any other shoes with you?”
David had looked down. “What’s wrong with these?” He’d turned one foot sideways, conscious that they were one of his better features. He liked showing them off. Of course he’d had a pair of sturdy boots with him. He just didn’t like putting them on until he absolutely had to.
“Your money,” Sutton had said with a laconic drawl that David would come to love. “Some of the places you want me to take you are pretty rough. And I’m not carrying you back to the chopper if you twist your ankle.”
He’d given David a smile then—more of a smirk, really. Little more than lifting one corner of his mouth. That’s when the crush had been born. It had leaped out like the goddess Athena, born from her father’s forehead, and had taunted David with what he couldn’t have.
Because the very things that made Sutton the real deal were also the things that made it highly unlikely he’d ever sleep with someone like David. Sutton probably had to beat the local women off with a stick to keep them at arm’s length unless the mood struck—at which time, he no doubt walked into the nearest bar and simply crooked his little finger. David bet dogs fighting over a steak would be prettier to watch and about as safe to approach. Admittedly David wasn’t 100 percent sure that Sutton was straight, but he was sure that Sutton had “loner” stamped all over him. Sutton would be far more likely to pick up someone in a bar than entangle himself with a client. Especially someone he seemed to consider high maintenance.
Yeah. David couldn’t see himself as being Sutton’s type. That didn’t stop him from fantasizing about it, though. It was weird, the affinity he had for Sutton, from the very moment he’d laid eyes on him. Almost as though they’d met before.
Sutton had been an excellent local resource, once David could pry any information out of him. After he figured out David wasn’t the average tourist, Sutton seemed to actually enjoy trying to find some of the more offbeat and unusual locations for David to view. Stumbling onto Sutton Air had been a godsend in other ways as well. Sutton’s operation might be small, but that meant that he wasn’t booked solid with the larger tours. He appeared to cater more to small groups, which meant his availability was good. Unlike a lot of services, Sutton Air had a helicopter as well as a plane, which meant most of the sites David wanted to check were accessible to him without having to hire more than one air company.
It hadn’t been a hardship to book Sutton repeatedly for flights, particularly when Sutton’s suggestions and input had proved invaluable, but there were times when David had been forced to wait until Sutton was available. Zeleznik had fussed a little at that, but David had pointed out how much money Sutton was saving them in the long run by ruling out sites David had previously checked online, providing inside information as to why they wouldn’t work, and showing David other locations that fit their needs perfectly. It didn’t hurt either, that David simply enjoyed his company.
Five hours before, David had been looking forward to spending the day with Sutton again. If his granny, who liked to pretend that the McIntyres had the “second sight,” had been present, she might have warned David to stay away from the plane. David probably would have ignored her. He usually did. But doomed crush or not, he didn’t want to die with Sutton.
DAVID SAID nothing and let Sutton do his job while he clung to his seat and prayed that he didn’t throw up all over the cockpit. Bad enough he was probably going to die. The thought of being humiliated before he did so was the only thing that clamped down on his nausea and panic. Vaguely recalling something about acupressure points for motion sickness, he clutched his wrist in his lap, digging his thumb into the small space between the base of his thumb and his wrist bone. It seemed to help, but he had to let go of his wrist in favor of grabbing the seat again when they hit a new patch of turbulence.
He thought he’d been doing a pretty good job of keeping the lid on his panic until then. Oddly he wanted a little pat on the back from Sutton, which was asinine. Sutton was trying to keep them alive and couldn’t spare a thought for his passenger. It didn’t stop David from slightly resenting the fact that no one had noticed how brave he was being. Of course that was before the loud crack of lightning that made him flinch and tuck his neck into his shoulders like a turtle, followed by the overwhelming crash of thunder that drowned out his yelp of surprise. The very air around the plane seemed to crackle with a bluish light. A sudden yaw turned into a nosedive, and his head snapped back against his seat. As the plane seemed to plummet like a stone, he made a thin, keening noise.
“I can do without the sound effects,” Sutton said, the muscles on his forearms standing out in sharp relief as he fought to regain control of the plane.
David snapped his lips shut. The plane shuddered and fought back—against Sutton, against the storm, against gravity. David breathed a huge sigh of relief when it leveled out again, and he slowly unpeeled locked fingers from the edge of his seat.
That’s why Sutton’s announcement that they were going down came as such a shock. David glanced at the altimeter and saw that they were, indeed, steadily losing altitude.
“We can’t go down,” David protested. “There’s nothing to go down to!”
Below them the ocean churned in a disconcerting boil of waves. The tropical depression, too small on the radar to even deserve a name but big enough to kill, was all around them.
“Busy flying,” Sutton snapped as he struggled again with the yoke of the plane. It bucked like a young colt, and a nasty wave of nausea rolled over David. “Best hope we can find a strip of dry land, or we’re going down in the water.”
This can’t be happening. And yet it was.
“Well, that looks promising.” Sutton might have been referring to a parking space in a crowded shopping mall, were it not for the way he fought with the controls.
“What does?” David couldn’t see anything out the windshield in front of them. Rain streaked the glass faster than the wipers could clear, and he leaned forward to peer through the murky grayness outside the plane.
“I can’t take my hands off the column. Reach over your head. See that button? No, the tan one. Press it. Yes. That one.”
David nervously pressed the button in question, and to his surprise, a viscous fluid sprayed down from the top of the windshield on the outside of the glass. The wipers dispersed it, and visibility improved dramatically.
“Rain-X for planes?” David asked.
“Something like that.” There was no grin in Sutton’s voice, as there would have been at any other time. “Clearing up ahead. On that small island. I think we can land there.”
“What? There?” David gaped in disbelief. “That’s not a clearing. That’s a hairline fracture. That’s not even—” The plane bucketed again. As the plane bounced violently, he sucked in his breath, unable to speak, let alone describe how not like an airport runway Sutton’s “clearing” was.
“I don’t think we’ve got much choice.” Sutton’s voice was grim. “We’re lucky to have that much. Hold on. These trees are coming up faster than I’d like.”
Still fighting to keep the nose of the plane up, Sutton guided the recalcitrant aircraft toward the so-called clearing. The ground rose up to meet them far faster than was comfortable. David found himself leaning back in his seat, bracing his hands on the console as the tops of trees scraped the underside of the plane. Branches swiped at the windshield, and David had the sudden impression of being in a car-wash scene as written by Stephen King.
“Duck your head!” Sutton barked. “Wrap your arms around your legs.”
“And kiss my ass good-bye?” David shouted, raising his voice over the increasing noise as he obeyed Sutton’s orders.
Incredibly Sutton laughed. It was an oddly comforting sound. Like everything was going to be all right because Sutton was at the controls.
The moment was gone in a flash. The plane screamed with the sound of tearing metal and the sharp, explosive crack of tree limbs and breaking glass. David kept his head down and his eyes closed, praying to a God he was pretty sure had more important things to do than keep up with the well-being of one David McIntyre. Despite being strapped in his seat, his head and shoulder thumped painfully against the passenger side door as the plane thrashed wildly. There was a moment of eerie, blessed silence, and for an instant, the assault on the plane seemed as though it had lifted. Like the eye of the storm, David thought, just before the plane hit the ground.
Someone had left the window open, and it was raining on him. How incredibly annoying. He shifted, intent on reaching for the offending window, when a jolt of pain ran through his shoulder and he gasped. When he opened his eyes, nothing made any sense. Even though he was strapped into his seat, the entire compartment he was seated in was tipped sideways. Bits of branches were poking into the area. Then he remembered the crash and realized that his side of the plane was pointing up at the sky. The rain was coming down in a steady stream through the broken windshield. The sound on the metal hull of the plane was nearly deafening.
He turned to look over at the pilot’s seat and winced at the pain in his neck. Sutton was slumped to one side, unmoving. His sunglasses were hanging off one ear.
“Oh God. Oh God. Oh God,” David murmured, hastily undoing his seat belt so he could reach across. Sutton’s skin was cold and damp, and adrenaline pounded through David’s veins, as though he could jumpstart Sutton’s heart by sending his own pulse beating through his fingertips. “Sutton! Rick!”
David fought to free himself from his seat, twisting for greater access to the other side of the cockpit. When the seat belt came open, he fell half across Sutton. Sprawled practically in his lap, David could now see the nasty cut on the left side of Sutton’s temple. The pilot’s side of the plane had taken a lot of damage, and David yelped as he encountered a sliver of glass. Bits of the windshield and console were scattered like confetti over Sutton’s jacket. “Sutton!” The lack of response was unnerving. He tossed aside the sunglasses and worked a hand down into Sutton’s collar, feeling frantically for a pulse.
He could have kissed the man when Sutton suddenly groaned.
“Are you all right? Can you understand me?” David began feeling around for additional injuries.
“I could never understand you, McIntyre,” Sutton said in a fair approximation of his slow drawl. Even the half smile was a good imitation of his usual expression. “Who tours the toughest jungles in the South Pacific dressed to play golf?”
“Hah-hah. Very funny. Keep your day job. Oh no, wait. Forget that. You’re not so good at the day job either.” Relief made him almost giddy. They were going to be okay. Everything was going to be okay.
Until Sutton tried to move and painfully caught his breath.
“What? What is it?” David tried to reach down around the other side to see what the problem was. He felt something wet—warmer than the rain coming in the windshield—and he pulled back his hand to stare at it in shock.
It was covered in blood. The metallic odor of it caught him unaware and almost made him gag.
“Shit,” Sutton said mildly. “I seem to be stuck on something.”
“Stuck?” David knew he was practically shrieking, but what the fuck was he supposed to do, miles from nowhere, with an injured man impaled on God knows what, who might die and leave him there all alone. “Radio,” he said sharply. He tried to snap his fingers, but the blood caused them to slip against each other without a sound. He hauled himself back to his seat so he could access the radio without having to twist his spine into a pretzel.
Sutton reached with his right hand for the radio mike, grunting just a little as he did so.
“Give me that.” David snatched the mike away from him. “Lie still. Don’t move. Try not to bleed to death.”
The corner of Sutton’s mouth twitched just a little. “I don’t think it’s all that bad.” He twisted slightly to look down at whatever had his arm pinned. Even that small movement caused him to close his eyes and lips tightly, however.
“What did I tell you about moving? You’re not going to die on me, you hear? I have no intention of spending the rest of my life on this island talking to a volleyball.” David picked up a set of headphones and held them to one ear as he clicked the mike the way he’d been watching Sutton do for weeks. “Mayday. Mayday. I repeat, this is an emergency. This—” David pressed the mike against his chest. “What’s our call sign?”
“Turning it on first probably helps. But that was a nice start. I’m pretty sure it was a basketball in the movie.”
“Who’s the movie expert here, me or you? Goddammit, I thought it was on.” David clicked the switch on the mike several times. “I’m not hearing anything. Not even static.”
Sutton frowned. “Give me the mike.”
David handed it over without question and held the headphones up to Sutton’s ear. Sutton clicked the switch as well, leaning forward carefully to flip the switch on the console up and down. His face was as bleak as winter when he sagged back into his seat. “Radio’s out. Possibly due to the storm, but most likely damaged in the crash.” He let his head loll back onto the seat and closed his eyes once more.
“What are we going to do?” There was no panic in David’s voice that time—just an honest need for information. He had only the vaguest idea of the kinds of things he should be considering next, and in what order, and that was based solely on the highly controlled “reality” survival shows he’d worked on.
Sutton took a deep breath and, without opening his eyes, wrenched himself sideways. A prolonged sound of pain tore its way out of him with his movement. David had just enough time to grab him before Sutton fell back onto whatever it was that had come through the side of the plane and impaled him in the first place.
“What did you do? Are you fucking nuts?” David was aghast. He twisted until he got his legs out from under the instrument panel and clung sideways to his chair with his boots on the seat. His new, better, waterproof boots that he’d bought seeking Sutton’s approval. The purchase seemed like a lifetime ago. Sutton still had his eyes closed and his teeth bared in a grimace of pain as he panted through it in short, sharp breaths.
“First aid kit. There has to be one, right?” David glanced behind the seats into the gloom that was the interior of the plane. What hadn’t been bolted down had tumbled within the cabin, but he spied the familiar blue-and-white box half under a duffel bag. Squeezing his body between the seats, he snagged both items and dragged them toward him.
“We need to get warm and dry. We need to get out of the rain. Clean water. Food. Flight plan’s been filed. Someone will find us.” In the gray light of the storm, David could make out the glitter of Sutton’s half-closed eyes as he spoke. His voice was tight with pain.
“Whatever was stuck in you was probably plugging something vital, like a lung, or a major blood vessel,” David yelled, pissed beyond belief. “The utter stupidity of you flyboys amazes me. You survive the goddamn crash, just to die from being stupid.”
“Don’t make me laugh.” Sutton’s amusement was thready and weak. David looked sharply at his face and was startled at how white it had become. “We can’t leave the plane if I’m skewered to the side of it.”
“I thought staying with the plane was the smartest thing to do?” David couldn’t find the source of the blood. It didn’t seem to be from Sutton’s chest or abdomen. So that was good, right? He was going to have to move Sutton to find his injury. He fumbled with Sutton’s seat belt. The mechanism was jammed and wouldn’t give at first.
“Only if we can find water within walking distance. And if we’re visible from the air.” Sutton’s voice faded away, and David patted his cheek smartly.
“Hey. Hey. Don’t pass out on me,” David warned, reaching under Sutton’s jacket and around his body to take hold of his torso. “I’ll never get you out of here if you pass out, and I can’t reach whatever’s bleeding from here. I need to stop the bleeding, okay? You’re going to have to help me.”
Sutton nodded silently. His lack of heroic banter worried David. He tightened his grip around Sutton’s chest and locked wrists that were slick with far too much blood. Where the hell is it coming from? He braced his feet against Sutton’s chair and pulled.
At first it seemed like nothing was happening, as though he was attempting to lift a two-ton gold brick. Then slowly he felt Sutton coming with him, oozing out of the seat like a man being pulled out of quicksand. Sutton wasn’t helping him much, a fact that scared the crap out of him. He’d slung one arm around David’s shoulder, but he was pretty much dead weight as David tugged on him. Things were progressing steadily, and David was gradually pulling Sutton out of the crumpled pilot’s seat, when suddenly they stopped moving.
David grunted and tugged some more—to no avail. He slithered around, trying to get a different grip on Sutton, but nothing worked.
“Hang on,” Sutton said, his breath coming in short, warm bursts near David’s ear. “I think I’m caught on something.”
“What, again?” David asked and was rewarded with a faint chuckle. It was odd to think that he could easily turn his head, and his lips would be on Sutton’s. They were practically embracing. As it was, Sutton shifted, trying to move his injured side, reaching around behind him. His actions caused him to arch his back slightly, pushing up against David’s chest. The rain had soaked through Sutton’s shirt, leaving no question as to his physical fitness. They could have been skin to skin, the contact was so close.
“Fuck. That hurts.” Sutton slumped against him. “Sorry.” His words were little more than exhaled breath. “I can’t reach it.”
“I don’t know what’s wrong with you,” David huffed, pulling Sutton closer into his body and then fishing around blindly behind him to see what he was caught on. He found the offending piece of cloth hung on part of the console. When he couldn’t unsnag it, he tore it instead and collected Sutton into his grip once more. “Most heroes could get impaled in the belly at least once every other episode, and still manage to fight off the bad guys and get the girl in the end. You’re supposed to say, ‘I’m fine. I have at least two kidneys’ and keep moving, mister.”
A laugh so soft it only stirred the hair near his ear sent a ripple of undefined emotion through David. He was afraid Sutton would die. He needed Sutton not to die.
“You watch too many movies,” Sutton said after a beat.
They were moving together again. David had to shift his grip to squeeze through the space between the tilted chairs and into t