Chapter One

The first jolt was jarring, but not enough to signal me that anything was wrong. I pressed my hands against the walls for leverage until the turbulence passed. I was used to it, having flown so much for business over the last five years. I leaned over the tiny sink to get a better look at myself in the mirror. The worthlessly dim lighting in the lavatory showed a tired and exhausted face. Today was never ending. The last day of the real estate conference had started at eight and ended at four. Traffic to LaGuardia was pure hell and I barely made my flight back home to Denver. I’d been in the same clothes since six in the morning and I was ready for a shower, my soft pajamas, and the book I forgot to pack when I flew to New York five days ago. I dabbed neutral lip gloss on and smoothed it out over my lips. The curl to my hair was limp so I fluffed it up the best I could. Nobody was meeting me at the airport, but I always liked to look good.

Three minutes ago, when the flight attendant announced that we were beginning our final descent into the Denver area, I headed to the bathroom in the rear of the plane. The flight attendant wasn’t happy I was up and around, but I promised her I would be quick. Plus, I needed a reprieve from the three-hour make-out session two women were having next to me. It was sweet, but it reminded me I didn’t have that in my life.

The second jolt smashed me into the mirror. My face felt tingly and swollen immediately. I gagged on the blood and mucus that filled my mouth and spit it out. I did a quick inventory of my teeth with my tongue. Nothing felt loose. I pushed up and struggled into a sitting position. I didn’t remember falling. I couldn’t figure out why the door was almost directly above me. A horrific grinding noise spurred me into action. Something was wrong. Something bad was happening.

I pushed against the door and crawled out when the plane straightened for a few seconds before veering again to the left. Bags and personal effects were strewn along the aisle. Yellow masks swung furiously as the plane bobbed and weaved. I crawled to grab onto a cart crashed on its side against the wall.

“Get into the seat!” someone to my left yelled. A flight attendant pointed to the fold-down chair across from her in the galley. I dragged myself to the tiny flip-down seat and held on with all of the strength I could muster. The pressure was all over the place. It felt like a ton of bricks was on my back one second, and the next I was floating. If the flight attendant hadn’t grabbed my arm in time, I would have knocked myself out on the ceiling. She helped keep me in place while I strapped in.

“What’s happening?” I yelled even though I knew.

She shook her head at me. It was impossible to communicate. The scream of twisted, stressed metal drowned out all other noises. We were falling apart in the sky. I begged for us to land safely, even though I knew the prayer was futile. I squeezed my eyes shut. No, no, no. This wasn’t happening. I was stuck in a nightmare. Wake up, wake up, wake up. A flash of bright light and a loud boom drew my attention to the circular window in the emergency exit. Flames blanketed my view and I flinched in horror. This didn’t make sense. The chances were one in ten million that a person would get in a plane crash. Not today. Not now. The plane had been fine for three hours. We hardly hit any turbulence the entire flight.

I didn’t know if we were ten thousand feet up and losing altitude fast, or a thousand feet from the ground and just needed a place to land. The passengers were surprisingly quiet until the plane turned again and plunged straight down. I screamed with the rest of them until I gagged and threw up. People clawed for their masks, several yanking them completely down from the ceiling. I grabbed the flight attendant in front of me, surprised at the blood on my hands. My weight pressed against the harness seat belt that I had cinched as tightly to my body as I could. The flight attendant held my hands in a vise-like grip. Neither of us was going to let go. Her eyes were closed and her lips were moving. I didn’t know if she was talking to me or praying to a higher being. I didn’t want to die. I started praying, God, if you get me out of here alive, I’ll never ask for another thing as long as I live.

“Brace for impact! Brace for impact!” a distant, garbled voice repeated over the intercom. That meant we were close to the ground. I squeezed my eyes shut. I knew I was only a few short breaths away from death. The plane throttled back and evened out for several seconds. I briefly thought we were going to get out of it alive until the belly of the plane hit the ground. My body folded like an accordion and snapped back when the plane bounced. I felt bones break. My heart jackhammered in my chest like never before. The plane hit something and fractured. The section I was in broke free and plunged sideways through thick trees. After what felt like eternity, it came to a stop and tilted up. The ball of fire that was the rest of the plane raced ahead. The tree line ended at a rock face. When the metal tube hit rock, it blew up.

“Get up, get out! Get up, get out!”

The flight attendant unstrapped herself and shook me. I must have passed out. Pain was everywhere. I knew something was wrong with my arm and it hurt to breathe. I looked at my side in confusion. A jagged piece of something was sticking out. I touched it and yelled in pain.

“I can’t move. I can’t move,” I said, my voice fading.

Strong hands pulled me up and a man with singed clothes held me close to him, careful not to touch my injury. Two other passengers wrestled with the door to get it open. The flight attendant held back people clawing to get out. It took about twenty seconds to get the door open and for the slide to inflate, but it felt like hours.

“You need to stay awake.” The man shook me gently. “I’m Jason and I’m going to help you. We’re going to go down the slide together, okay?”

I nodded and looked behind me before we crouched down to get out of the plane. It was too dark to see well, but I could make out bodies of people still strapped in their seats and some even in the aisle, or what was left of it. None of them were moving. The only light we had was from random flames that burned brightly in the forest beside us and seats that caught fire. The stench of jet fuel made me gag. The man holding me was drenched in it, but I clutched him tightly as we descended. He pulled me upright and walked me several feet away until he found a safe place for me to sit.

“Stay here and stay awake.”

I watched him climb back into the tail section and disappear. I looked around in disbelief. The plane had crashed and somehow I was still alive. I inventoried all body parts. My face was swollen and I had a cut that wouldn’t stop bleeding somewhere above my eye. I wiped the blood with my suit jacket sleeve but couldn’t stanch it. I looked at my side. Either a rib had popped out and broken the skin, or I was impaled by a piece of metal. It was too dark to see and I was shaking too hard to find out. I saw four people several feet away and stumbled over to them because I didn’t want to be alone. A lady reached out and helped me into a sitting position next to her on a fallen tree. We didn’t talk much. We just held one another, knowing we survived the impossible. It hurt to cry, to breathe, but I was thankful.

The injuries around me weren’t severe. These survivors were the first off the plane. A young man fell and twisted his ankle. Linda, the woman who sat beside me on the tree trunk, had charred smudges on her clothes and across her face, but otherwise, there wasn’t a scratch on her. A married couple tended to one another’s cuts, but nobody seemed critical.

“Is there anybody else alive who can’t get out?” Linda asked the flight attendant who appeared out of nowhere carrying a blanket. She spread the blanket on the ground and motioned for others to help. Sitting hurt like a bitch and apparently my injury spoke volumes because they all pitched in to help me lie down.

“I’m going to check.”

I passed out again. When I came to, the flight attendant was putting one of the survivors in charge before she headed back to the wreckage. The man who rescued me had brought back four people who weren’t in great shape. I couldn’t look at them. I didn’t know if one of the guys was missing a hand or if it was so badly mangled that I just couldn’t make it out in the dark. They seated him on somebody’s jacket. I felt worthless, but I had no energy and couldn’t even save myself, let alone somebody else.

“Hopefully, help gets here soon. I called 9-1-1. They already knew,” Jason said. He paced in front of me and stared at the burning tail section of the plane. “There’s nobody left. Nobody alive. I searched everywhere.” He ran his hand back and forth over his head and continued pacing.

“Can you see the rest of the plane?” someone asked.

“Does anybody have a flashlight or something I can use? Maybe I can get over there before help arrives.” Jason checked his cell phone and shook his head. “I only have nine percent of my battery left.”

A few survivors had their phones on them, but the flashlights were too dull to make a difference in the thick forest. The rest of the plane seemed close but was probably about two hundred yards away. Nobody could have survived the explosion. The cockpit was now an inferno, billowing black smoke that was darker than the night sky. Jason was determined, though. He pointed at me, said something to the flight attendant, and disappeared into the woods. A few others followed. The shock was wearing off and the pain magnified, accompanied by the shakes. My teeth chattered and I clenched down. I focused on the good. Even though I was bruised and completely beat up, I had survived the unthinkable.

 

v

 

The first responders swarmed the crash site with bright lights and shrill sirens. I was tired of hearing loud noises and shouts. The spotlights from the helicopters above made me nauseous and I heaved twice before the EMTs reached me. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but they placed a collar around my neck, lifted me onto a portable stretcher, and rushed me to a waiting helicopter. I felt every step they took but was thankful to get away from the wreckage. The stench of burning flesh, jet fuel, and melted electronics was too much for me.

“You’re safe now. We’re going to take care of you and get you to a hospital.” The EMT looked down at me with a forced smile. It hurt to smile back, so I tried to nod instead. At least I thought I did. He slipped an oxygen mask over my mouth and nose and told me to breathe normally. I heard clips of deep voices and felt hands cutting away my clothes, but I didn’t care. Once I knew I was truly safe, I welcomed the darkness and faded off to sleep.

 

Chapter Two

According to Vicky, the nurse who checked my vision and my vitals the second I stirred awake, I’d been asleep for sixteen hours. She said I was in the emergency room at the University of Colorado Hospital, but I had no recollection of getting there.

“Honey, do you know your name?”

“Shaylie. Shaylie Beck.” Something was wrong with my throat. It felt like it was on fire. I tried clearing it, but I couldn’t even muster the energy to swallow.

She scribbled down my name and scurried out with the promise that a doctor would be right in. Horrific scenes flashed in my mind as I remembered what I’d been through and the loss of life I’d witnessed.

A woman in a white coat walked in. “Shaylie, I’m Dr. Shafer. You’re a very lucky woman. We’re glad you’re awake.”

“What happened? Every single part of me hurts.” I didn’t recognize my voice. It was unbelievably painful to talk. I tried swallowing again but failed.

She placed her hand on my forearm as a calming gesture. “You were in a plane crash. Do you remember it?”

I nodded but gave up having a conversation.

“They brought you in Friday night. You have three broken ribs and several stitches from a piece of metal we extracted from your rib cage. Your lungs are swollen due to exposure to the jet fuel. It’s going to hurt to talk and breathe for the next few weeks. You dislocated your shoulder, fractured your wrist, and you have lacerations above your left eye and on the side of your knee.” She leaned over my bed and checked my vision by making me follow her finger with my eyes. “And you have a concussion, but you are alive and you will walk out of here in a few days.”

I started crying because not only did I hurt all over, but so many people didn’t make it. Flight 215 was a full flight.

“How many survivors?” I asked.

She shook her head. “The EMTs took survivors to all available hospitals in the area, so I can’t give you a number right now. The five patients we have are all doing well and will be released sometime this weekend.”

Nobody knew I was on that flight except my boss. I’d bet money she wasn’t even paying attention when she called me at the airport to find out how the last day of the conference went. She expected me to call in every night with a report. It irked me no end that she was two years younger and I had to report to her. Commercial real estate brokers didn’t need bosses. We were too ambitious and hungry to worry about corporate schedules. She was the one who forced me to attend the conference in New York. Brittany Miller slept her way to the top and knew nothing about real estate or how to manage people. I tried going around her, but her boss, Travis, was also her not-so-secret boyfriend and he just shrugged at me. I hated everything about the company I worked for except the money.

“Do you need us to call anyone? You didn’t have any identification or a phone on you, so we weren’t sure who to call.”

My best friend Marisa knew I went to the conference but didn’t know my travel schedule. She probably didn’t know I was returning Friday. My parents lived in California. My mom probably tried to reach me since the plane crash happened right outside of Denver, but no one really knew my itinerary.

“Marisa Bower.” Fuck. I didn’t know her number. It was stored in my phone, not in my memory. “She’s a cop.”

“Marisa Bower? We can try to reach her. Is she in the Denver area?”

I nodded. Even that hurt. I knew that once Marisa found out, she would take care of informing every single person in my life, including my parents.

“Okay, try to get some rest and we’ll find Marisa for you.” She wrote down information and left the room.

I fumbled with the oversized remote that controlled everything in my room from my bed to the television. I had to know what happened and why. Several of the channels were still covering the crash. According to sources, there were one hundred and forty-five passengers including the crew onboard, but only eleven survivors. Two were in critical condition. I thought of Jason and what he had to have seen at the other crash sites. The plane broke apart in three sections and all of the survivors were in the tail section. Had I not defied the rules and sneaked to the bathroom, I would be dead. The couple who made out nonstop next to me? Dead. The woman and her baby three rows up? Dead.

“You need to rest and not worry about the news.” Vicky returned and added something to my IV that relaxed me immediately. She turned off the television and informed me Marisa was on her way. She said I should get some sleep until then.

I closed my eyes and allowed the medicine to take my mind off the last day. I gratefully drifted back to sleep, thankful that I was alive but in so much pain that I still thought I was going to die.

 

v

 

“You’re awake. Sweetheart, oh, my God. I’m so happy you’re alive.”

I focused on Marisa’s long blond hair as it brushed my chin when she tried to hug me. I bit my lip to stop from crying out but still grunted at her touch.

“Oh, shit. I’m sorry. I don’t even know what to do right now.”

She sat on a chair that was already pulled close to the bed.

“How long have I been out?”

“I got here about two hours ago. I’m so sorry, Shaylie.” The tears pooled in her blue eyes and dropped on her cheeks. She looked devastated.

“The good news is that I survived.” I tried a tiny laugh but groaned instead. It hurt to talk. Hell, it hurt to breathe. I didn’t know how I was going to function with a cast and broken ribs.

“Fuck. Did you ever. I can’t believe it. I really can’t. What they are saying on the news—” Her eyes lit up as she started the conversation, then she stopped herself. “We can talk about it when you feel better. I called your parents. They are on their way.”

“Thanks, Mar.”

“I still can’t believe it.”

“I can’t either. I hurt everywhere. How do I look?”

Marisa’s bottom lip started quivering again. She took a deep breath and looked over my head.

“You look like you just got back from hell. They did a pretty decent job of cleaning up the blood, but you have a really large bandage on your head. The nurse said you have eight stitches on your forehead, twenty-three in your side because a piece of a chair fucking impaled you, and seventeen stitches on the inside of your knee.” She looked at me after her recap and gave me a sad smile. “But you’re still beautiful.”

“You’re too sweet.” I still didn’t recognize my voice. Even though I was alive, I felt worse than when I was on the ground wrapped in a blanket after Jason dragged me off the plane. “Do you know if Jason is out there?”

Marisa sat back down after fussing with my hair. “Who’s Jason?”

“He’s the one who got me off the plane. He saved me and a bunch of others.”

“There are a lot of people here, but I can ask around. Your nurse might know where he is. Do you want him here?”

I nodded and started crying again. I was overly emotional, but I wanted to thank him. I knew if anybody could find him, it would be Marisa. She was a detective, so the badge got her information right away, but she was also drop dead gorgeous and people fell over themselves to help her. She was tough as nails with an angelic face.

“Then I’ll go find him. Do you want anything? Can you eat food? Jell-O? Pudding? Ice cream?” Her voice held a note of desperation. She wanted to help me any way she could but didn’t know how.

I waved off the offer of food. Nothing sounded good, plus I wasn’t even sure my stomach would hold anything down. “I think I’m going to rest. Can you wake me if you find him?”

“Of course. I’m on it.”

She bolted from the room, anxious to have something to do. Marisa wasn’t one to be idle and I was tired of answering questions. I hit my pain button a few times and drifted back into oblivion.

I woke up to Marisa and my parents leaning over me.

“Is she in a coma?” The panic in my mom’s voice almost made me smile.

“She’s not in a coma, Bridget. She’s just drugged up. The doctor said she was in a lot of pain,” my dad said. Leave it to him to get straight to the point.

I kept my eyes closed for a few minutes longer. It was nice that they were here. Did they fly? I cracked my eyes open just a little as I pictured their flight crashing to the ground.

“Shaylie, it’s Mom. Can you hear me?”

I nodded. My once-thunderous headache had subsided into an annoying poke at the base of my skull. I hit the drip only once. I wanted to be coherent enough to have a conversation with them.

“Did you find Jason?” I reached out to Marisa.

She shook her head. “He’s already been released. Thankfully, he only had a few cuts and bruises and some minor burns that will heal. I’m sure we’ll run into him soon.”

“How do you feel?” My mom’s voice was two octaves higher than normal.

I knew she was a few seconds from completely falling apart. I wasn’t trying to ignore her, but I didn’t want to state the obvious. I obviously looked like shit, so I was sure everyone knew I felt like it, too.

“I’m sore.”

“Can I get you anything?” My mom touched my knee and I grimaced.

“Not that knee, Bridget. That’s the one with the stitches.”

I heard my dad’s gruff voice again, but he was standing too far back for me to see him. My mom blanched. My dad leaned into my line of vision, kissed my cheek, and pulled up a chair for my mother to sit in.

“Honey, you’re going to be fine. You mom is going to stay here for a bit and help you get back on your feet. I’m so thankful you’re alive.” He squeezed my hand and smiled at me. It was the first time I’d seen my dad smile in ages. Military life squelched a lot of his emotions. My mother was the exact opposite.

“Thanks, guys. I appreciate the help.” I struggled to sit up, but Marisa pressed her hand gently on my chest.

“Let me help.” She used the remote to tilt the top half of the bed up.

“Any chance I can get a mirror? Or better yet, a shower?”

“I’m going to nix both at the moment. I’m sure before you leave, they’ll hose you down, but right now it’s going to be hard with all of your stitches and bandages,” Marisa said.

If Marisa didn’t want me looking in a mirror, then I knew it was bad. I scowled and leaned back. I poked my ribs gingerly. My side didn’t hurt nearly as much as it did when I was at the crash site, but I was also heavily medicated. I looked under the covers at my leg. It was bandaged so I couldn’t see anything. My mom pulled the covers down to look, too. I could bend my leg, but it felt tight. I didn’t know if that was due to swelling or the bandages. I was a mess, but I was done crying. I was alive and one hundred and thirty-four people on that flight weren’t.

“How are you feeling today, Shaylie?” Dr. Shafer knocked as she walked in with her clipboard and a nurse.

“Better than earlier, but still rough.”

My family huddled in the corner of the room as she took my vitals and checked my injuries.

“You’ll limp for a bit and it’s going to be hard to breathe for a few more weeks, but I think by Tuesday you can go home. How does that sound?”

“Best news I’ve heard in a long time.”

“Are you hungry yet?” She checked my IV bag. “You’re going to need more than liquids.”

“I could probably eat something easy.” I still wasn’t hungry, but I wanted out of this place, and being agreeable was the first step.

“Perfect. The soup is pretty good today. That’s a good start.” She winked at me and nodded to my family still huddled in the corner.

“That’s great news. I can go to your house and stock the refrigerator and clean up,” Mom said. She hated sitting around, too. The next few weeks with me was going to kill her.

“Marisa’s going to have to give you a key. I have nothing. Not even my purse.” I held up my hands like a blackjack dealer in the pit switching shifts. The only personal item they found on me was the neutral lip gloss in my pocket. Fuck. I was going to have to cancel all my credit cards, call my bank, get another driver’s license and passport.

“I’m already on it. Don’t worry about a thing,” Marisa said as if reading my mind. She marched out of the room, her phone already up to her ear.

“I’m so happy you have her in your life. Tell me again why you two aren’t together?” Mom said.

I rolled my eyes at her. “She’s straight, Mom.” This wasn’t the first time we’d had this conversation. For some reason, my mother kept pushing it.

“She’s gorgeous. I just wish you both would find somebody. You aren’t getting any younger, you know.” Leave it to my mother to bring that up at a time like this.

“Thirty-two isn’t old. For either of us.” I reached for the remote and reclined my bed. “I’m tired.” They took the hint. My father leaned over and kissed the tip of my nose. My mother squeezed my hand.

“Okay, we’re going to get some food and bring you up something you can eat when you’re ready.”

I loved that they were there for me, but I just needed the world to go quiet again.

 

Chapter Three

“How can you not have any news? It’s been a month. This is ridiculous.” A few people clapped at the woman’s outburst.

I leaned up in my chair to see who was brave enough to interrupt. The spokesperson for the Federal Aviation Administration, Dallas Thorpe, held up his hand, indicating he understood our concern and had answers.

“We are all frustrated we don’t have all the answers yet. The flight recorder was damaged, so it’s going to take time to process the information.” Well, fuck. So much for the indestructible black box. “We know the left engine had issues. It might take us months to figure out the actual cause, but I promise you, we are doing everything possible to understand what happened.”

I snorted at the way he said “issues.” It exploded in a ball of fire and sent us hurtling into the ground. Thorpe and his team were assigned our crash. Today was the weekly meeting that the FAA had with the survivors of Flight 215. The survivors included the eleven passengers and loved ones of those who didn’t survive. I didn’t recognize the woman who spoke as one of the plane survivors, so she probably lost a loved one. She was the kind of woman who got a lot of looks whether she wanted to or not. Her brown wavy hair was loosely pulled back from her face. The white tank top, yoga pants, shirt tied around her waist, and several bracelets on her arms gave her a bohemian vibe. I looked at my slacks and button-down blouse. I felt frumpy and old, but my wardrobe was severely limited due to my injuries. Pulling something over my head was impossible. I was destined to wear button-down shirts and cardigans for at least another week. Before my mother returned to California, we’d shopped for clothes that would be easy to slip on. My ribs were healing and my stitches were gone, but I was bruised and sore and still had a cast on my wrist.

“Look, I lost two people I loved very much on this flight and I just want answers so I can find peace. We all do.” She pointed behind her at the crowd, who nodded once again.

“We’re working on this twenty-four seven. As soon as we have a report, we’ll share it with you.”

The lady sat down and Thorpe reassured us they wouldn’t rest until they had answers. I didn’t want to attend the meetings, but Marisa thought it was a good idea. The airline had grief counselors on hand who we were encouraged to meet with either in a group setting or one-on-one. I was repressing a lot of emotions, but the fact that I was alive outweighed anything else. I was here today, my first meeting, because I wanted to personally thank Jason. Marisa found him and we’d talked on the phone, but he lived in Cheyenne, so grabbing a cup of coffee wasn’t easy. He said he attended the meetings and would meet me there. I didn’t see him, but there were over two hundred people packed into the lecture hall at the University of Colorado where the FAA held the meetings. I would find him when the meeting was over.

“Wow. She’s cute.” Marisa leaned over me to get a better look at the woman who just sat down.

“Are you serious? She’s a hot mess right now. I feel awful for her. She lost two people she loved,” I said. I wondered who she lost. Was it the little boy with his dad two rows behind me? Was it the old couple across from me who handed me a napkin when my drink spilled? On a deeper, darker level, I felt guilty for surviving. So many people died that night. I had obsessed over the photos of the crash site online, wondering about my original seat, the bathroom I’d been trapped in, the slide I went down. I wondered why I made it. I wanted there to be more survivors. “But, yes, she is pretty.”

“Contrary to what you think, I’m not trying to fix you up. I was just saying she was attractive. I can appreciate beauty,” she said.

I placed my hand over hers. “I’m sorry. I’m just on edge being here. I’m nervous to see Jason again.” I wasn’t entirely sure why I was nervous. The man had saved my life and I owed it to him to thank him in person. But the woman threw me for a loop because she was beautiful and I was at a somber event and wasn’t expecting to feel tingles.

When the meeting was over, several people milled about including the press, who were itching to talk to survivors. Marisa got between me and them. I headed to a room designated for group therapy. I peeked in and saw about thirty people hovering by the coffeepots.

“How are you feeling?” a masculine voice behind me asked.

I turned to find Jason. I hugged him and started crying. I knew I was going to have a strong reaction upon seeing him again, I just didn’t know I was going to lose my shit. Marisa came up behind me and rubbed my back soothingly as I clung to him.

“Thank you so much,” I said.

He held me tighter. I didn’t care that my ribs were sore or that the fresh scar on my side was on fire. I just held him for as long as I needed to. When I finally relaxed and pulled back, I touched his face and smiled at him. He brushed my tears away, and I brushed away his.

“You look and smell so much better.”

He laughed. “I hope so. It took forever to get rid of that awful jet fuel smell.” He leaned back but still gently held my elbows.

“Hi, I’m Shaylie. This is my best friend, Marisa.”

He hugged me again. “I’m Jason. Nice to finally meet you. Both of you.” He winked at Marisa. I swore she blushed. “You look a hell of a lot better than the last time I saw you,” he said.

“I’m feeling better, too. Some stitches and a few breaks, but I’ll be good as new in about three weeks.” At least the cast was removable and I could shower with it off. My first shower after a week of sponge baths had been heavenly. I stayed under the stream until the water turned lukewarm and my mother scolded me. She reminded me that I didn’t need a cold on top of my injuries.

“Are you back to work?” he asked.

“Yes. I’ve been working from home. Thankfully, I can do that.”

Jason and I had a few conversations on the phone over the last two weeks. His family owned a ranch in Cheyenne. He was the quintessential cowboy. We talked about work, relationships, and why the fuck we were both on that plane. He was visiting his cousin in New York.

“So, what did your boss say?” he asked. He knew my beef with Brittany.

“Oh, don’t even get me started.” Marisa waved her hand at him like she had too much to say and none of it was good.

He laughed at her theatrics. She blushed again. This was interesting. Jason was thirty and single. Marisa was thirty-two and single. Jason was a good-looking man with ambition. Marisa was beautiful, smart, and liked men who made quick decisions. I switched into matchmaker mode immediately.

“Are you here overnight? Would you like to have dinner with us later?” I wasn’t sure of the appropriate term for this group meeting and I didn’t feel comfortable calling it therapy. I felt a slight lean from Marisa. She was either excited or upset that I offered.

“If you ladies don’t mind the company, I’d love to,” he said. He led the way to a few empty chairs arranged in a large circle when the person in charge of this session asked us all to take a seat.

I stiffened slightly when I noticed the woman who stood up to Dallas Thorpe was sitting five seats down from us. Marisa did the lean thing again. I studied the woman’s profile. Marisa was right. This woman was beautiful. Her wavy hair was the color of milk chocolate and her eyes were a light golden brown. I held her gaze briefly when she focused her attention in my direction to find the source of an annoyingly loud squeaking chair. Beautiful really was a poor word. With her high cheekbones and full lips, stunning was more like it. She was probably in her late twenties and had a confidence about her that heightened her attractiveness.

“I see we have a few more people in this session. Hi, my name is Daniel and we’re all here to listen and help one another out. What happened was very traumatic, and sometimes sharing really helps cleanse the soul.”

Jason leaned over and whispered, “Last week it got loud and turned ugly fast. Daniel had to remind people he wasn’t with the FAA but was a just a PTSD therapist.”

“Jason, I’m happy to see you here today. How are things?” Daniel asked.

I froze. Everybody turned to look at us. Even Marisa sat up in her chair a little straighter. I wasn’t ready for people to notice me.

“Things are good. I’m getting used to my every day again. Loud noises still bother me and I drive about ten miles under the speed limit, but I’m fortunate.” He turned and looked at me, waiting for me to either say something or allow him to. I nodded. “This is Shaylie. She’s the first person I helped off the plane. I’m thankful she is doing well, too.”

Fuck. I teared up and gave a small wave to the group.

“Welcome, Shaylie. Would you like to say a few words?” Daniel’s voice was very soothing and I didn’t want to talk, but I wanted to give Jason the respect he deserved.

“I’m fortunate to be here, too, and it’s because of Jason.” I reached out and took his hand for support.

“Do you want to tell us about it?” Daniel asked.

“The reason I survived was because I was where I shouldn’t have been. We had begun our descent and I went to the bathroom and got stuck back there. It’s a good thing I did, or else…” Everybody knew what I meant.

“Where were you in the plane?” I didn’t recognize the woman who asked me. She wasn’t one of the eleven survivors.

“My seat was in the front part of the plane. Row nine.”

The attractive woman stiffened and made a noise, but didn’t say anything. I waited.

“We’re very glad you’re here,” Daniel said. A few people asked me questions and I did my best to answer them. I was so nervous. The session ended after forty-five minutes, but I was exhausted. Hearing other survivors and, worse, people who lost loved ones was draining. I hugged and thanked the flight attendant, Carol, who’d got me strapped into a seat. I didn’t see the older lady who held me when Jason got me off the plane, but I found out she lived in Oregon and Denver was just a layover for her. I would get her address from the representative of the Victims Assistance Program. The director of the program had given me her business card and told me to call her any time I wanted.

“Excuse me. Can I speak to you for a moment?” I turned to find the woman Marisa and I were admiring. I nodded and stepped away from Jason, Carol, and Marisa.

“Yes, of course.”

“You said you were in row nine. What was your seat number?”

I didn’t feel good about this. Her voice held a note of anxiety that raised my own level of angst.

“Nine C. I was on the aisle.”

She placed her hand on my forearm. “You must have been sitting next to my fiancée, Robin, and my best friend, Emma. Do you remember them?”

I gritted my teeth and tried not to judge. Maybe they had an open relationship. The two women sitting next to me were kissing, touching, laughing, cuddling, and acting like teenagers in love, not as if one of them was involved with someone else.

“There was a lady with light brown hair sitting next to me,” I said.

“That’s Robin. And Emma has short almost black hair.” She became animated after finding a connection to her loved ones. She clutched my arm tighter. “How were they? I know you left your seat before…well, before the crash. I guess I just wanted to know that they were happy and at least together.” She dropped her hand from my arm.

I had to give her something. “They were joking and having a lot of fun.” I left out the part where they were making out. And the fact that they annoyed the shit out of me the entire flight. Guilt washed over me as I realized I was a complete jerk for still being upset over them. I was alive. This woman standing in front of me had just lost two very important people in her life and was trying to find closure. I was the only person who could ease her mind and help her take the next step.

“I didn’t talk to Robin before their flight. I was teaching a class, so she left me a voice mail,” she said. I waited as she recalled that memory and got lost in it for a few moments. “I’m sorry. Hi, I’m Piper. Piper Cole. Thank you for talking to me.” The corners of her mouth perked up for a brief moment.

“Hi, Piper. I’m Shaylie Beck. I’m very sorry for your loss.” I had no idea what to say to her other than that. I didn’t feel comfortable telling her what I witnessed.

“I’m glad you made it out okay. It must have been a horrific experience for you. I can’t even imagine.”

I watched her swallow several times and knew she was a few seconds away from crying. I pulled her into my arms and held her. She was stiff for a few moments, but when the sobs hit, she melted against me. I was the last connection between her and her fiancée. After a few minutes, she stepped out of my embrace and wiped the tears off her cheeks.

“I’m sorry about that,” she said.

I waved her off. “Trust me, I have cried more the last few weeks than I ever have in my life. I’m so sorry for everybody here who lost someone. If it wasn’t for Jason, I’d wouldn’t have survived either.” I introduced them. Jason was very sweet to her.

“If you’re up for it, we’re going to grab dinner. You’re more than welcome to join us,” he said.

She briefly hesitated before nodding. I watched a swirl of emotions on her face. I knew she felt guilty for living, but it was important for her to know it was out of her control. It was a horrible accident that nobody could help. There was a risk in getting on an airplane. I’d already decided I wasn’t flying again for a very long time, if ever.