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Author: Gwen Hunter
Title from Bella Rosa Books
PLANES, CHUTES AND PAPARAZZI
She didn't want Lake
Ponchartrain, shining in the sun, to be the last sight she saw in this
life, but unless the pilot was goodvery goodit would be. Looking
out the window of the 727, water sparkled, appearing pristine beneath
her. Beautiful to look at from this vantage, where the remembered chemical
stink of the dead water couldn't be smelled, where the rainbow effect
of decades of spilled gasoline and oil and the scum growing on the surface
couldn't be seen.
News reports said the lake had been cleaned up
but she never believed it. She hated it. Hated this lake, the buildings
huddled like beetles on its rim, the ships plowing their way out toward
the gulf, hated everything the view below represented. She was a fool
to have come here. But then, she'd been a fool quite often lately. There'd
been ample proof of that.
The flight attendant, a slim young man with Humphry
Bogart eyes, checked the passengers to see that their seats were upright
and locked, seatbelts cinched tightly, and made certain they all had a
pillow or blanket to burrow their faces in. He was terrified, but trying
not to show it. Too bad the airlines hadn't thought to provide parachutes.
He was awfully young to die today.
She wasn't usually this morbid. She wasn't ever
this morbid. A sudden flush of anger shot through her, and she forced
a smile onto her frozen features. If she died, she would not be pulled
from the dank water, face etched with fear. Instead she gestured to the
flight attendant on his way back to the galley. "Do we get complimentary
drinks when we land? I think I may need one then. A double. What do you
He stopped, surprised, and an answering smile fought
the fear in his famous-looking eyes. "Mrs. Stone, if the airline
doesn't offer you one, I'll buy you one myself."
"It's a date." He nodded firmly, as if making
a pact, and hurried away.
Moments later, she bent forward against the seatbelt
and pulled the sandals off her feet, tucked them into the neckline of
her silk shell. With deft motions, she pulled her raincoat closed, buttoning
it over the carry-on tote and camera bag slung over her shoulders, the
bags and spike heels hidden beneath it.
The 727 was descending. If the old bird survived this
landing without landing gear, these shoes would not be left behind. Resting
her face in the rough fabric of the U.S.Air pillow, she smelled the stale
scent of cigarettes and the last patron's hair spray. White Rain? Alberto?
And the fragrance of her own sweat.
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph," she whispered, mostly
in prayer. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph."
The landing was brutal. Metal shrieked, a grinding
squeal. Braking engines roared, vibrating through her bones. She was forced
forward, bouncing with the jet, the safety belt cutting into her. She
forgot to breathe. The sound crescendoed, beyond anything she could ever
have imagined. Someone was screaming nearby.
The seat beneath her lifted and fell again slamming
the breath from her. Her face banged onto her knees through the thin pillow,
the impact drawing mucous and tears. The jet skewed to one side, throwing
her against the armrest. There was the coppery taste of blood. Beneath
it all she could hear herself whisper through clenched teeth, "Jesus,
Mary and Joseph. Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Hail Mary full of grace."
Catholic schoolgirl prayer.
An eternity later, the movement of the jet slowed.
The engines changed pitch. Deeper. Softer perhaps, just a bit. The screaming
of the jet's skin against the tarmac grew to basso profundo and eased
away. The forward momentum slowed.
A silence louder than the roar buffeted her ears.
They had stopped.
Slowly, Geneva raised her head, licked her lips.
Jack was beside her, pulling at the buckle of the safety belt. She stood,
her raincoat swirling around her, hidden carry-on baggage bumping beneath
the long folds. Barefoot, she stumbled up the aisle, daylight from the
open hatch blinding her.
She turned to Jack as he gripped her beneath
the arm. "That drink?"
"Bottomless Margaritas, Mrs. Stone. Enough
to swim in." His eyes were manic and she grinned at him. "Wipe
your face when you get to the bottom," he advised. "Your lips
are all bloody." He lifted her, fingers cruel beneath her arms as
he and another tossed her from the 727 onto the emergency chute.
The world danced a sickening pirouette as she
skidded off the rubber slide into the waiting arms of the rescue worker.
With bruising fingers he too lifted her, and with an ungentle shove sent
her stumbling, barefoot, toward the terminal.
She had survived the landing.
Dizzy from the rough arrival, she fought for balance
and sucked wet air.
Geneva had prided herself for nearly twenty years
that her tolerance for stifling New York summers was the one positive
holdover from her youth. The first breath of New Orleans' August air was
an insult, searing her lungs, assuring her that any real tolerance to
southern humidity was long gone. Jet fuel exhaust, the sour miasma of
Lake Ponchartrain, and the sudden stink of her own sweat enclosed her
like a fevered wet fist.
Raw silk slacks, already creased from the hours
of flight time and the three hour holdover in Atlanta, wilted. Her silk
blouse stuck to her back beneath her raincoat like loose snakeskin needing
to be shed against some handy rock.
Shoving damp blond strings off her forehead, she
wiped blood from her lips and licked at the smear before slipping her
sandals from inside her blouse and onto her feet. Her bare soles were
already blistering on the hot tarmac.
She pulled off her raincoat, fighting the heat.
The heavy camera bagwhich she had refused to relinquish to the exigencies
of the landingshe slung over her shoulder again as she slogged her
way to the terminal. Her soles sank in a line of tar in the concrete,
and with each step after, they adhered, leaving a trail of gooey black
But she was alive.
She waved at a small boy running past and he waved
in return, giving the thumbs up signal. She returned it and laughed. She
was alive. She wanted to cry, but laughed again instead.
"I should have stayed in New York,"
a woman muttered beside her, mascara streaking her face. "I should
have stayed in New York."
"That's what I thought," Gen said, "but
then I'd have missed all the fun." The breath and the words parched
The woman looked at her as if she thought Geneva
was crazy, then quickly turned away.
Perhaps she was crazy. She had been more
than a little wired for days. The mascara-smeared woman pushed past her
and ran with the flow of passengers.
The terminal loomed ahead. Twenty-nine years
is too long. There were no bridges left to mend in this Godforsaken,
parboiled place, only bad memories and the ghosts of the past. God only
knew how her father would react. Sweat now ran like spiders down her back,
and she stretched her shoulder blades to relieve the itch.
It was insane. And it was all Barry's fault. She
laughed again, feeling black despair gather in her chest, the despair
that had sent her running from New York and the paparazzi and the fact
of the lie that was her marriage. The laughter died. Twenty seconds in
Louisiana and the last dregs of her good humor had evaporated. Not even
her legal separation and impending divorce had accomplished that. Tears,
once an unfamiliar sensation, prickled her eyelids. She would not
cry. She would not. Geneva took a deep breath of the fume-laden
Grimacing, she clenched her toes against the slippery
leather of the sandal bottoms, managing to make the last few yards to
the air-conditioned lobby as passengers from the plane's nether regions
merged around her, running for the building. Icy air hit her face and
dried the sweat already trickling down her temple. She shivered in the
sudden delicious cool and licked salt off her lips. A remembered taste
from childhood. Her tears faded and she shook her head. It had been this
way for days now. Despair and hilarity in equal parts.
Once inside, she pulled off the ruined sandals,
holding them out to the U.S. Airways officer standing just inside the
building. If he had been about to badger her for refusing to leave her
possessions on board, the sight of her sandals stopped him. His face fell
as he took the delicate shoes by their thin ankle straps. "I'm just
glad I didn't have to walk across the hot concrete in my bare toes,"
"Did an exceptional job." She smiled
warmly and watched the man's discomfort clear instantly. "The captain
is my hero for life. Honest." She held up a hand "Honest Injun"
style, a politically incorrect gesture she hadn't made in decades. It
was this place. Had to be.
Sticking the offending hand into a pocket, Geneva
looked back out at the plane. It was a wounded bird nestled in a bed of
foam, surrounded by fire trucks and workers in bright yellow fire retardant
suits. A long scar gouged the runway behind it. A trace of fear remembered
from the long descent fluttered through her. Geneva clenched her jaw.
She never gave in to fear. Never.
"It was my first belly landing, and I expected
it to be much worse." She laughed, pleased that the sound was steady
and calm, taking the opportunity to check the man's name badge as she
touched the black goo cooling on her shoes,. "But perhaps bogging
down the belly of the plane in strips of melted tar is a Louisiana safety
"Designed just for this kind of emergency,
ma'am," he said with a twinkle. "Not even landing strips can
handle the kind of heat we've had this week."
"Please pass along my compliments to both
the captain and flight crew, Mr. James. And if you would be so kind, would
you remind Jack, the flight attendant with beautiful Bogart eyes, that
he owes me a Margarita big enough to swim in?"
Mr. James looked nonplussed a moment and then
understanding dawned. "You earned it, ma'am. I'll make sure to remind
"Again, my compliments to the flight crew,
Mr. James," she said, leaving her ruined shoes dangling on his fingers.
She almost added, I'll pass along my compliments to Mr. Stone,
but caught herself at the last moment. Old habits die hard. James nodded
and turned his attention to another passenger, one a bit more cranky,
now that she was safely on the ground.
Geneva turned at the sound of the fresh voice.
"Keri!" She held out her arms, enfolded her niece, and hugged
her tightly, thinking fleetingly that perhaps there were compensations
to be found in this trip after-all. With a hand beneath the girl's pointed
chin, Geneva tilted back the black head of hair and smiled down into the
gamine face. "You beautiful child! And so tall! Look at you. You've
grown into a beauty. You are a sweetheart to meet me."
"The landing gear got stuck. And we were
all scared to death."
"I'm absolutely fine. Not a scratch on me."
Gen tucked a strand of greasy blond hair behind her ear, remembering to
check her earrings. The diamonds were still in place, and suddenly she
was feeling better, calmer, out of the fetid air and the stink of near
disaster, Keri in her arms. She kissed her niece on the forehead.
"Some dramatic entrance, Aunt Gen,"
her tall, dark nephew bent across Keri and kissed her cheek. "You
look great, especially for someone who just went through a crash landing
in a 727."
"Destan! I look awful and smell almost as
bad," she added in mock whisper. "But you are a darlin' to say
so. Look at you, nearly six feet, are you?" He blushed and Gen hugged
her lanky nephew and linked arms with both teens, as they relieved her
of camera bag, raincoat, and the shoulder bag she had forgotten she carried
in the slippery departure. After she released Destan, she could feel the
bruises left in her skin by the spikes of her ruined heels. She might
be sore for a few days
"Barefoot through the terminal, Ginny?
Such gauche behavior for a Deveraux," a strange voice teased. Gen
looked up, startled at the sound, the almost-familiar accent on her name
as she found him. Time dilated and slowed.
He leaned against a support pillar, one leg bent,
booted foot flat against the column. Dark slacks, crisp white shirt, sleeves
rolled up. Whip-cord strong arms crossed over his chest.
Coiled strength. Lean. Lethal-looking.
She met his eyes. Black eyes crinkled in a sun-worn
olive-skinned face. French-black hair, black as Destan's, black as a bayou
in starlight, fell negligently over his forehead.
She remembered the feel of that silky hair sliding
through her fingers. The salty taste of his skin. Cold ran down her body,
a shock, like icy water.
"Ginny," he nodded, the sound
French with a soft G, almost Shen-nay. "Me? I can't see you,
pas you, being so . . . chokay. . . ." A flash of white
teeth in a dangerous smile.
"Starnes," she breathed. The blood drained
from her face. Her feet were frozen to the frigid floor. Her skin prickled
as if thousands of tiny hairs lifted. Starnes Templar. . . .
He raised long fingers to tip an imaginary hat,
his face grave.
She started forward, lifted a hand as if to touch
"TV cameras are outside," Keri said.
Time snapped back in place with an almost audible pop.
Gen blinked, looked down at the girl, away from
the vision of her past, her niece suddenly remembered. "They're filming
the landing and interviewing the passengers," Keri said. "Sure
you don't want to put on some shoes? Uncle Barry won't like--" Destan
elbowed Keri to silence and the teens exchanged a guilty glance.
Shoes? The conversation came back to her,
along with her despair. A fragile smile covered her reaction to Barry's
name, to the sight of the man nearby. "The floor feels wonderful
on my bare feet," she assured them. "Besides, I'm only a photographer
now, not a socialite, not Mrs. Barry Stone. I can afford to be
eccentric," she said, excusing the aborted comment about her almost-ex-husband.
"And your Uncle Barry is no longer around to decide what I should
Putting her forehead down to Keri's, she added,
"You don't have to be careful about using his name, you know. I'm
divorcing him, not dying of Barry-cell leukemia." The teens grinned,
"I'm so glad you're okay," Keri said,
hugging her, voice muffled in Gen's shoulder.
"You may as well know." Destan looked
at his sister. She pulled away, shook her head 'no', but he ignored the
silent advice and plowed on. "We called Mama. Uncle Starnes said
we had to."
Uncle Starnes? Uncle Starnes? When did
that happen? Gen looked up, meeting the amused, dark eyes.
"Yeah. He brought us to get you. Stayed with
us all afternoon while the plane circled and landed."
"And? You called Lily . . ." Gen prompted,
her own eyes looking away from the dark form.
"So, anyway, the Old Man answered the phone."
"You didn't." Dread washed through her.
Keri looked miserable as she added to the narrative.
"We had to tell him."
"Had to," Destan reiterated. "Mama
would have been pissed if we hadn't called and you had gone down in flames,
smeared all over the runway." Destan was delighted with his vision,
eyes alight and dancing.
"Mama won't like you using that word."
"Mama isn't here," Destan countered
"I don't suppose it occurred to either of
you that your grandfather didn't know I was coming."
"We figured that out." Destan said with
a devilish grin, flash of white teeth in his olive-skinned face.
So like Starnes. Why had she never noted the typical-Louisiana
coloring, the French-y similarity before? It had been years since she
thought of Starnes, and now suddenly, she was seeing him everywhere. His
lithe form pushed away from the pillar, moved closer. She felt her breath
catch, her eyes locked to his.
Rebound attraction, the rational part of
her brain whispered.
"So you may assume he saw your dramatic entrance,
Ginny," Starnes said. "In full color on the new wide-screen
TV at the foot of his bed."
"And he'll see you walk out of the terminal
without shoes," Keri said, grinning at the thought.
"He'll be pissed," Destan added with
teenaged jollity. He dropped his voice and set his face in stern lines.
"It is not the way we do things." It was a good
impersonation of her father. The fact that it also sounded just like her
near-ex wasn't lost on her either. Funny that she had never noticed how
alike the two men were until she was about to lose both of them. She was
seeing resemblances in everyone.
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph," she whispered.
"And he'll be making Mama's life a living
hell till we get back with you." Destan said. "He can be a real
devil. I know now why you and Mama never came back once you left the estate."
Geneva sighed. It wasn't the entry she had planned,
worried over, and lost sleep over in the two days since she had made the
agonizing decision to come home. "Except for the ones I was wearing,
all my shoes are in my luggage. On the plane." She looked down at
her bare feet and wiggled her painted toes. Touching the shoulder tote,
she said, "This is it baggage-wise, until the airline releases my
luggage stored in the belly of the plane."
Geneva took in the cameras up ahead, the mobs
of passengers and frantic families with microphones stuck close to their
faces, the shouted questions and near hysteria. She had been trying all
her life to rid herself of the hated image of her father and the terrified
girl who had run away from him so long ago. And now she was walking back
into his life and his disapproval with bare feet. A breathless sensation
she hadn't felt since childhood gripped her a for moment. Fear of her
father. Of his swift, unpredictable anger. His wide leather belt. Her
father who lay dying.
"Hésitant, Ginny?" Starnes'
voice drawled, challenging.
She jerked, saw him again, just ahead and to the
side of them, standing alone, apart from the Deveraux's as always, amused
crinkles at the corners of his eyes.
"Pas ma Ginny. She fear nothing."
His black eyes seemed to be saying something else, hold another meaning.
Seemed to pull her in.
Gen sucked in a deep breath, her eyes locked to
his. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph." She paused, needing something
far stronger than the mild swearing. Maybe the old goat will die before
I get there.
Starnes cocked a mocking brow and she realized
she had spoken aloud. Destan and Keri giggled and urged her on toward
the TV cameras and press waiting at the end of the terminal, Starnes falling
in behind. Gen had known on takeoff, when she looked out the window and
saw the afternoon sunlight dappling the New York skyline, that this trip
south was a mistake. The landing from hell was further persuasion, the
tar clinging to her ruined sandals like black glue had convinced her.
And now the press. It was all one gigantic nightmare. And Starnes
She could feel him behind her, the heat of his body seeming to blaze.
She would go on TV--in what might make national
news if this was an otherwise uneventful day--looking like a sweat-smeared
zombie from some C-grade movie. She hated this place.
Destan cleaved the way through the press like
a football fullback, one elbow up to shove aside bodies, the other hand
raised to push away microphones. Yet, one woman, more vicious than the
rest of the pack, managed to pull Keri from Gen's grasp. Using the girl
as ransom, she shoved a fuzzy microphone into Gen's face.
"Mrs. Stone, is it true that you left your
husband for a younger man?" she demanded.
Gen actually laughed. "Print what you want!
You always do!" Almost anything would be better than the truth.
"It'll be better fiction than most of the stories about me."
Keri jerked her arm free, slammed her heel down
on the woman's instep and moved with Gen after Destan. Starnes lifted
an arm, elbowing a cameraman back.
"Good move, girl. You should be a bodyguard,"
"Stupid witch," Keri said, ducking under
another mic and breaking free of the mob. "I think she bruised my
arm. How can you stand these people, Aunt Gen?"
"They aren't people. They are parasites,"
Gen huffed, now following her niece and nephew into the parking garage.
"Leaches." She had started to sweat again and knew that her
deodorant had totally failed her. She was loosing her breath in the heat
and fumes, her head pounding. Someone had stepped on her bare foot in
the passage through the press. "They are scarabaeids."
Starnes jogged ahead, his gait uneven, and vanished
into the gloom. Behind them, several of the media turned and began to
follow in a tangle of bodies and cameras.
"What's a scarabaeid?" Keri asked and
guided her to one side, around a large woman who should never have discovered
Lycra, especially in such a vibrant purple shade. Gen had no idea that
boas and mules even came in that shade of grape. The smell of exhaust
stung Gen's eyes, or maybe it was the sight of the stretched-thin Lycra.
Keri glanced back and rolled her eyes, making an awful face.
Gen managed to laugh at Keri's antics. She loved
her niece like the daughter she never had. "Dung beetles are scarabaeids,"
she said. "Most men are scarabaeids. Your Uncle Barry is a
scarabaeid of the first order. President of the Scarabaeid Society."
Laughing, Keri aimed Gen at a long white Lincoln,
its engine idling. She tossed the baggage into the trunk as Destan climbed
into the front passenger seat. Keri got into the back seat with Gen. The
upholstery was velour, soaking up sweat like a sponge. The AC on high
brought back her shivers.
The Lincoln peeled down the exit ramp like a race
car, taking the turns with abandon as the press raced toward the parking
site on foot. Gen cinched the safety belt in self defense. Destan tuned
the radio to a rap station. She thought her head would explode. "Uncle
Starnes, Aunt Gen looks a little green. Slow down," Keri said.
"Can't. Got company. I have a feeling Ginny
doesn't want them following us to the estate."
Uncle Starnes? That familial title again.
It was unnerving. Swallowing her nausea, Gen turned her head. Behind them
was a news van, the distinct MSNBC logo painted on the side. The woman
who had waylaid Keri was in the passenger seat, a compact open before
her face, touching up her makeup. Even from this distance, Gen could see
the sweat glisten on the woman's skin. Starnes took another turn, tires
squealing. "Drive," Gen said.
On the straight length of down-tilted concrete,
Keri stretched across the front seat and turned off the radio. "I'm
telling you, Aunt Gen looks like she's gonna puke."
Destan glanced back at her but said nothing as
Keri dropped into her seat and buckled up. The radio stayed off, however,
and Gen thought she detected a slight decrease in acceleration. Speed
was really a waste of time as the ticket booths were just ahead with lines
of cars waiting to pay. Destan cursed, a new teenaged trait Gen hoped
he would outgrow. Lily would have a fit if she knew her son used that
kind of language. The car came to a stop. Starnes' tanned fingers tapped
gently on the wheel, his impatience clear in the rhythm.
The news van roared up behind them as a camera
man and the female reporter jumped out, mic in hand. She rapped on Gen's
tinted window with force, and Gen wondered what would happen if she opened
the window and threw up all over the woman. Would it still make the evening
A new toll booth opened to the left of them and
Starnes gunned the engine and swerved hard, taking the first spot and
handing the teller correct change. Three more cars pulled in behind them
before the reporter could get back into the van. They lost sight of the
press in a sea of slow moving vehicles, as Starnes, pushing the Lincoln,
© 2007 Gwen Hunter