Alive at 5 ONLY
by Linda Bond
TV news reporter Samantha Steele is one panic attack away from losing her job. Future on the line and cameraman in tow, she follows her mentor on an exhilarating adventure vacation. When he dies while skydiving, her investigative instincts scream “murdered”, and lead her to gorgeous thrill-seeker Zack Hunter.
Zack is an undercover police officer investigating his uncle’s death through the same adventure vacation company. Samantha is a thorn in his side the moment they meet. Not only is she investigating the same case, but the emotionally wounded loner doesn’t want another partner, especially one whose goal is to splash evidence all over the evening news. But Samantha’s persistence is quite a turn-on, and Zack’s overpowering desire makes it harder for him to push her away.
When the killer turns his attention to Zack, Samantha might be the only one who can save him, forcing the anxiety-riddled correspondent to finally face her greatest fear.
Title: Alive at 5
Author: Linda Bond
Genre: Suspense, Romantic Suspense
Length: 309 pages
Release Date: July 2014
Price listed is for the U.S. digital format. Please confirm pricing and availability with the retailer before downloading.
Praise for Alive at 5:
“Linda Bond delivers a rollercoaster ride of romance, a dash of recklessness, and a resolution wrapped in that ah-ha moment.”
– Walt Macborski, Emmy Award-winning journalist
An Excerpt from:
Alive at 5
by Linda Bond
Copyright © 2014 by Linda Bond. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Zack Hunter’s heart hammered against his ribs in a flurry of painful jabs. Closing his eyes, he forced out his growing anxiety in a wild battle cry and leaped through the plane’s open door.
No turning back. The mission begins now.
The usual blast of air slapped his face in rhythmic waves, but the familiarity didn’t comfort him.
Plummeting 120 miles an hour toward the Central Florida drop zone, he forced his eyes open. Arms spread wide, belly to the ground, his exposed skin stung as if a thousand tiny millipedes ran up and down his flesh. But it wasn’t that sensation making his stomach churn.
Don’t think. Just do. He couldn’t screw up again.
For one crazy second he thought about not opening his parachute. He would hit the ground so hard, he’d be gone before he felt it. Death might be the only way to extinguish the inferno of guilt slowly burning him alive. His uncaring family wouldn’t even miss him.
No, he had to stay alive to right the wrong. He could trust no one else to do it. Three men had died in the last three years on these expensive, high-risk vacations—including his uncle, a man he’d loved like a father. He had to prove their deaths were no accident. He was the only one who still believed justice had to be served.
He deployed his high performance parachute, the nylon filling with air. As the straps jerked against his chest, he grunted, the air whooshing out of his lungs. The burning pain was a well-deserved punishment. Punishment for not being able to save his Florida Department of Law Enforcement partner, who had drowned on a police dive mission. Punishment for being so preoccupied with personal guilt over that failure that he’d let his uncle go on a dangerous adventure vacation without him. If Zack had taken the trip as his uncle had asked, Jackson Hunter would still be alive today.
All Zack had to do now was keep control of the damn parachute—and his fluctuating emotions—and he’d fit right in among the adrenaline junkies kicking off their two-week adventure vacation today. No one would suspect his secret motive for being on this crazy, organized thrill ride: find out what happened to Jackson, the uncle who had saved him from his abusive father.
Against the pull of the atmosphere, Zack glanced down. The altimeter on his wrist read six hundred feet. Pulling on the front risers of the parachute, he dropped into a spiraling dive. His heart beat faster as the shallow pond in the Zephyrhills landing zone rose up and closed in on him.
Another rush of testosterone fueled him. Instinctively, he swooped into an L-shaped turn that took him so close to the pond his toes skimmed the calm surface. As he skidded across the top of the liquid blanket, the water splashed up in fluid bullets. In a strange way, the sting comforted him, made him feel as though he was paying a price for failing both his police partner and his uncle. But he wouldn’t fail again. He lifted his gaze from the water. It took half a second to register a woman standing at the end of the pond.
He only had time to make out long legs, a black skirt, a slender frame, and long, dark brown hair. Was that a video camera pointing at him?
Oh, hell no.
His heart stomped within his chest. The woman wasn’t moving out of his way.
He yanked harder on the canopy brakes, trying to stop his momentum as he skated across the top of the lake. His mouth went dry. This was going to suck. For both of them. As his feet hit dirt, he cut diagonally to avoid an accident. Too late. Flipping head over heels, he cartwheeled toward the woman.
Through the viewfinder, Sam Steele saw the blur of a skydiver careening toward her. Holy shit! How’d she miss his jump? Sucking in a deep breath, she dove at the ground.
Their bodies collided and pain seared through her. Sam flung her arms forward, the small digital news camera flying out of her hands. She landed face-first in the dirt. The camera whacked the back of her head, and a sharp pain rippled through her skull.
Breathe. Just breathe.
“What the hell?” a deep voice boomed from her right.
She pushed herself up, sucked in a deep breath, and fell back on her butt, blinking to clear her vision. She didn’t see any blood, but her head hurt like hell.
The skydiver came into focus. He’d already detached himself from his parachute and was flexing his legs. No obvious injuries on him either. Thank God.
The man was tall with short, dark hair, wide shoulders, and a long, lean body. Military? Then wouldn’t he know better than to land like that? He could’ve killed her.
Whipping off his goggles, the skydiver peered around. She intended to give him a good piece of her mind, but stalled when his heated gaze zeroed in on her.
He stormed her way with fisted hands, closing the distance between them in a few powerful strides. He dropped to a knee, his chest rising and falling. “Are you okay?”
“Well, you scared me to death, but I don’t think you broke any of my bones.” She flexed her arms. One ached like it had been bruised.
“Good to hear.” A vein pulsed at his temple. “Now, let me ask you this. What in the hell were you thinking?” His chest continued to rise and fall as if adrenaline still fueled his muscles. “This is a landing zone. You were standing right in the middle of it.”
Oh, so this was her fault? Taken aback, Sam barely managed to suck in enough air to speak. “My job. That’s what I was doing.” She cringed as a sharp pain pinched under her rib cage. She wanted to reach up and touch her chin, make sure it wasn’t bleeding, but she didn’t want to show any sign of weakness. Not in front of this guy. “If you knew what you were doing, you wouldn’t have slammed into me.”
“Is that so?” He rocked back on his heels. His jaw flexed.
Finally, he jumped up and stuck out his right hand. “Let me help you.”
She hesitated before accepting his offer. With a firm grip, he pulled her to her feet.
Big mistake. Instantly, a wave of nausea rolled through her. She closed her eyes and wobbled on her heels, grabbing him for balance. Her fingers found his forearm just as his other arm wrapped around her middle, pulling her closer and holding her upright.
“I’ve got you.”
He smelled like the outdoors on a steamy afternoon right after a heavy rain. A bit dizzy, she peered up at him.
“Are you seeing stars? Is my face blurry?” He held up three fingers. “How many fingers do you see?”
“What?” Usually she was the one throwing out the questions.
Unexpectedly, the skydiver grinned, and his smile changed his whole look from irritated to quite handsome.
Her heart skipped.
“Your speech isn’t slurred. That’s a good sign. No concussion. Though, I bet you hit your head pretty good.” His hand moved to the back of her arm. He looked skyward. “Come on, we’ve got to get out of the landing zone.” With just enough pressure on her elbow to get her to move, he guided her away from the grassy landing area. He was heading toward the wooden spectator viewing deck several yards away.
She stopped only to pick up her video camera. A quick glance assured her the outside wasn’t broken. She silently prayed the video wasn’t messed up either. That would be just what she needed, another reason for her boss to fire her. She was already on probation.
A woman in a Skydive Drop Zone T-shirt sprinted up to them, out of breath, features lined with worry. “Hey, you all right? I saw the accident from the office.”
Sam raised her hand. “I’m fine.” She wobbled out of the skydiver’s grip and pushed past the employee, trying to remember the last time she’d been so light-headed, or so embarrassed. The blazing sun beating down on her wasn’t helping. Her chin still burned, and she felt a knot forming on the back of her head. Great.
“You need anything? A first aid kit, ice?” the woman asked. “A doctor?”
“I’m good.” At least she thought she was.When she reached the viewing deck, she slid onto a bench, glad to be off her feet. She was seeing stars. Maybe she should get her head checked, or at least go inside the office. It was only a few feet away, and it was air-conditioned. Nope. She couldn’t miss Maxwell’s landing. Her boss would surely fire her if she missed another story. Her stomach cramped at the thought.
The skydiver slid onto the opposite end of the bench, studying her with intensity so hot it could have liquefied a fifty-pound bag of ice. Why was he looking at her like that? She ran a hand over her hair, hoping she didn’t have dirt or grass sticking out all over the place. “What?” Was she bleeding somewhere she couldn’t see?
“Do you have any idea how dangerous it is to stand on the edge of a swooping pond?”
“That’s where I was told the first skydivers would be landing.” She frowned. “I’m a television news reporter.” She raised the camera as evidence. “I was shooting video for a story. Sometimes we have to get close to record the action.” She took a good look at him. His black irises blazed, and with that strong jaw, he could have been some movie star action hero. The hair on her arms tingled from unexpected electricity.
She shifted on the bench. “Swooping? That’s different from a regular jump?” She shot him a sideways glance. “Is the collision at the end part of the fun?”
The corners of his mouth tugged up, igniting a different type of wooziness in her center. When he brushed her left cheek, heat shot into her face.
“Hey,” he cocked his head and offered a nonthreatening smile, “It’s just a little smudge of dirt.” He gently swiped it away.
She opened her mouth, but the words “Thank you,” jumbled up in the back of her throat. What was wrong with her?
“And if that’s the only thing wrong with you, we’re both pretty damn lucky.” He shook his head. “I hit you pretty good. I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry, too.” Maybe he was a nice guy. Sam regretted the way she’d snapped at him. “I was just trying to get a good angle on some video.” She was also relieved that the crash hadn’t given her a concussion. If she started acting all loopy and complained, her boss would think she was just trying to make up another excuse for her poor performances lately.
“I’m Zack Hunter.” He reached a hand across the bench. “And you are?”
“Samantha Steele.” She shook his hand. His grip was firm, all businesslike, but his eyes twinkled with mischief. Now why had she just said Samantha? Most people called her Sam, and she preferred it that way.
“Samantha Steele? That sounds like a made-for-TV name. So, Samantha Steele, what brings you out here today in your little black skirt and your very high heels?”
She raised one eyebrow. That flirty one-liner had come too easily. Zack Hunter was probably like all the other playboy skydivers she’d encountered here. Just the type she’d promised herself she’d avoid. Most were trouble.
She ignored the come-on. “I’m doing a hometown hero feature story about Maxwell Wentworth. He owns a local chain of grocery stores. He’s starting a vacation with the X-Force Adventure Vacation Company today. We’re following him for two weeks.” She looked up. “My photographer is up in the plane shooting video of his first jump and, since I don’t fly, I offered to shoot video of Maxwell’s landing.”
“You don’t fly?” Zack stared at her as if her fear of flying was a disease he might catch.
“No, I don’t.” Her stomach tightened.
“Afraid?” He grinned.
The familiar bulge of sadness balled up in the back of her throat. “Sort of. My mother almost died in a plane crash.”
The smile slid off his face. “Jesus. I’m sorry.” He dropped his gaze and shifted on the bench. “I understand what it’s like to see a loved one hurt.” He rested his chin in his hand, his gaze searching hers. “Wentworth, eh? I’ve met him. Tell me, what makes him such a hometown hero?”
Grateful for the change in subject, she said, “He’s given millions of dollars to local charities. In fact, he just funded a new children’s wing at the Tampa Bay Cancer Center.” He had also pulled some strings for her and arranged to get her mom, whom he’d dated years ago, into an elite nursing home after the plane crash. “And he’s just cool.” Thinking about the loving, generous man pushed the heart-wrenching images of her mother’s battered body into the back of her mind and lifted her spirit.
Zack’s gaze was curious. “Does that smile mean he’s Tampa Bay’s hometown hero, or yours?”
“I do admire Maxwell. He’s a great man.” And the only father figure she’d ever had.
“Wentworth was on the Otter, the twin engine aircraft they use here. He was going up to thirteen thousand feet.” Zack looked up at the cloudless sky. “They should be jumping anytime.”
She followed his focus skyward. “If you were on the same plane, how did you get down so fast?”
“They dropped me at five thousand feet. I was swooping, remember? I was going to glide across the pond and then hit the shore. Most swoopers like to jump at the lower altitude.”
“Makes for a more thrilling ride.” His face lit up with a devilish grin.
Oh, yeah. He was definitely flirting with her. The man was bold and maybe even a bit arrogant. The unexpected physical rush of attraction rippled through her again. “Did you learn how to swoop in the military?”
He rubbed a hand over his short hair. “Maybe.” He studied her, his gaze challenging. “But I’ll deny telling you that if you ever report it. Soldiers aren’t supposed to hotdog. Not following protocol could get a man court-martialed.”
“So, you’re still active in the military?”
“You ask a lot of questions.”
“Reporter. Right.” He winked, neglecting to say what his current status was.
Oh, boy. Men like this made her nervous. Knocked her off her game. She kept a tight rein on her emotions these days and needed to be in control. It was the only way she could function, and keep her job, so she could pay the bills piling up on her kitchen counter. But something in the way this guy was engaging her was disarming.
The best way to keep men like him from taking control of a situation was to stay on the offensive. “If you’re not still active military, then what do you do these days, Zack Hunter, ex-military man?”
“Right now, I’m fully engaged in my next mission.”
“Getting to know you.”
A laugh escaped her, despite her best effort to stop it.
He stretched his legs out beneath the picnic bench. “Actually, I’m taking the same X-Force Adventure Vacation as Wentworth. Two weeks of skydiving, cave diving, a little swimming with the sharks, and flying in an F-16.”
His face changed as he spoke. The intense military hotdogger now resembled an excited little boy about to embark on a forbidden adventure with his favorite friends. Swimming with sharks and flying fighter jets for fun? Seriously? No thank you. While she dealt with stress by holding on tight, she’d bet Zack Hunter survived it by letting go. “It must cost a lot to buy this kind of excitement.”
“About twenty-five grand.” He shrugged. “It’s only money.” His eyes danced with amusement. “Are you interviewing me?”
Her heart tap-danced like a child’s nervous feet during a first recital. Something about this stranger interested her. Maybe it was his absolute confidence in the face of her questioning. In fact, right now she was the one not sure of what to say next. Terrific. Just what she needed. Even less self-assurance. She straightened and scooted down the bench to put more space between them. Don’t fall for his cocky charm. She didn’t want to end up like her mother, chasing smooth-talking Prince Charmings all her life. And despite the unexpected and interesting chemistry between them, Zack was probably just like her absent father, another wealthy, spoiled man who wouldn’t stick around. “Twenty-five grand,” she said coolly. “I guess you’re as rich as the rest of these adventure vacationers.”
He cocked his head to one side and peered at her through amused but wary eyes. “You have a problem with money?”
The muscles in her face hurt from controlling them.
“I do sit on the board of my family’s foundation.” He raised an eyebrow at her. “I bet you don’t mind that Wentworth is loaded.”
Her stomach tightened. “Maxwell Wentworth earned his own money. He built that chain of grocery stores from the ground up. He’s not just spending daddy’s cash. He’s not a self-indulgent, entitled, trust fund baby.” She hit the last words hard.
Zack’s smile faded. He studied her for a moment. “Some trust fund baby must have hurt you pretty badly.”
She shifted on the bench, and focused on her hands. “Not me.” Her dad had been an affluent boy from New England who had romanced her mom and said all the right things one spring break at Clearwater Beach. He’d disappeared when her mother needed him the most. Sam thought about explaining, but then thought better of it. As if Zack Hunter, thrill-seeker, would care.
She needed to get back to work. Maxwell must be landing soon. She had a deadline to meet, and a job to keep.
He cleared his throat. “Well, now that I know you’re okay, I’ll let you get back to your reporting.” As he stood, he glanced skyward and shielded his eyes. “Yep, there they go. See those black dots in the sky? Your friend is about to open his parachute. Keep your eyes to the sky.” He peered down at her, and his face relaxed into a lopsided grin. “And keep your cute little ass out of the landing zone.”
As she attempted to formulate a witty response, a thunderous noise boomed overhead, making her jump. She peered up, half expecting to see lightning coming from a dark rain cloud, but there wasn’t a single cloud in the crisp, blue sky.
Scrambling up, Zack cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled back toward the office, “Hard opening!”
“What does that mean?” She feared the answer.
“Someone’s in trouble.”
She grabbed the video camera, turned it on, and hit the zoom button. Frantic, she searched the sky for Maxwell’s signature red jumpsuit.
She zeroed in on him. He hung limp as a rag doll in his harness, his parachute open and spinning out of control. Her heart galloped. “That’s Maxwell! What’s wrong with him? He’s going to overshoot the landing zone!”
“He’s got bigger problems than that.”
A man in a Skydive Drop Zone uniform ran out of the main office. Zack grabbed him by the arm. “Call 911. Get the paramedics here quickly. Maxwell Wentworth may be unconscious. He’s coming in for a rough landing.”
Sam’s knees buckled and sweat beaded on her forehead. She slammed the camera onto the table and grabbed the edge in an attempt to stop herself from collapsing.
Zack steadied her with a firm hand. “Sit down, Samantha,” he ordered, but not without sympathy. “Let us help your friend.”
The skydive employee pulled out his cell phone and made a call.
Once she’d dropped onto the bench, Zack took off running.
What was she doing? That was Maxwell out there. “Wait! I’m coming with you.” Kicking off her high heels, she ran after him. Grass slick with humidity slid between her toes. She slipped, but righted herself and kept going.
Zack spun around to face her and she plowed into him. He grabbed her by the shoulders, fingers pinching her flesh. “You have to go back. You don’t want to see this.” His black eyes glowed with intensity.
She lifted her chin. “He’s like a father to me.” Warm tears slid down her cheeks. She slapped them away, needing to get to Maxwell.
Zack released a male sound of disapproval. “Then prepare yourself for the worst. I’ve seen hard landings before. If your friend isn’t already dead, trust me, this landing will kill him.”