Caroline is finally making headway with Jack, in spite of the interference of his estranged wife, who just can’t let go. When a romantic hot air balloon ride ends in a crash that strands Caroline in the forest with Jack, she weaves a steampunk story to pass the time until they are rescued. The story helps her realize that Jack is also unwilling to let go, and she has to decide whether it’s best to leave the man she is falling in love with, or give him the extra time he needs to cut the ties that bind him to his wife.
The burners whooshed as flames shot out, giving us almost immediate—but very limited—lift. I seized the sides of the gondola in a white-knuckled grip as the safety of the fields disappeared and we found ourselves over water. Tall firs and oak trees loomed beyond the river’s edge. Too close for comfort. Way too close.
“Is that high enough?” I asked.
“No. The warm air’s escaping. I’ll keep trying, though. If we get over the forest, there are more fields on the other side.”
“Yes, if. Would you rather I lied and pretended everything was going to be okay?” His lips clamped together.
The river meandered, twisting and winding. We cleared the first expanse of water in about a minute and then trees skimmed beneath us. Not a clearing in sight, just really thick woodlands. In a few more minutes, we’d be over the river again as it doubled back on itself. At least we were maintaining altitude.
“We can keep going like this until we find a clearing, right?”
“That’s the plan. There might be other wind currents further up that could blow us in another direction, but we can’t get to them. We’re a good thirty or forty feet over the trees. Let’s hope we stay that way.”
If the uppermost branches snagged the gondola, it would be one hell of a jarring fall to the forest floor. A deadly fall. I swallowed. The harsh whoosh of the burners faded and disappeared.
“Why are you stopping?” I turned around. “Don’t we need to keep—”
Jack bit the inside of his cheek and pulled repeatedly on the lever.
A ball of nausea formed in my stomach. “No more propane?”
He shook his head. “I checked the tanks myself yesterday. This has been a long flight, but there should be more left than this.”
How often did hot air balloons crash? You never heard about them crashing or running out of fuel. This was insane. I started to shake. There was absolutely nothing we could do to slow our descent.
“What’s next? The crash position?” This sexual escapade of ours put us in this situation. If we hadn’t been making out like a couple of hormone-crazed teenagers, we would have landed a long time ago and we’d be sipping champagne in the middle of a field right now. “I can’t see a single clearing anywhere.” I gnawed on my knuckle, a nervous tic I’d gotten over years earlier.
The balloon sank lower and lower. We’d scrape the tops of trees in no time at all. And then what? Our best hope was to go down in the river. Would we make it until the next stretch of water? My heart pounded in my chest and I hoped Jack didn’t hate me for putting us in this predicament.
“The water’s safer than the trees,” I said.
He echoed my thoughts. “Yes, but…”
“Sorry, Caroline, but I’m not the best swimmer.”
His pupils dilated. “I got us into this. It’s my fault.”
“Your fault? It’s mine, too.” Me and my thoughts about the mile-high club. I should have known he needed to focus on where the balloon was going.
I looked over the side and immediately wished I hadn’t. Branches scraped the bottom of the wicker basket. My stomach twisted. If we made it a few more feet we’d be over the water. Twigs snapped. Come on. Come on. The envelope loomed over us, still fully inflated. Leaves appeared over the side of the basket. No! No! Just a few more feet and we’ll be in the clear. Jack’s lips moved and I read the words, “More, more.”
Please, please, please. As if in response to my wish, an extra breath of wind pushed us off the tree branches and over the water. Relief flooded me, but a wave of fear quickly took over. We were going to crash-land. There was no way to avoid it. The balloon drifted over the river, fifteen feet in the air. Ten. Five. Jack pulled on my arm, gesturing for me to hunker down in the basket. Holding hands, we waited for the inevitable.
The gondola splashed into the river and bounced off the surface like a skipping rock. The impact jolted me and my head hit the back of the wicker basket. Jack slid over and collided into me, pinning me to the side of the gondola. We were airborne for a few seconds and the basket thudded into the river as though the surface were made of concrete. The gondola keeled over sideways and water splashed in.
“Hurry!” I leaped into the water feet first, plunging in over my head and popping to the surface like a cork, struggling to stay clear of the lines that hooked the basket to the canopy. They were falling all around me, threatening to tangle me and drag me down as the balloon came to rest on the river’s sparkling surface.
Jack still crouched inside the overturned basket, water up to his ankles, desperately clawing at the edges. If he didn’t let go, he’d sink right along with it.
“Jump out!” I called, fighting against the river’s current. “Jump!”
Didn’t he know how to swim at all? Jack took a giant leap, arms flailing, landing with a splash. He floundered a few feet away from me. As I treaded water, he waved his arms in an awkward breaststroke. His panicked eyes told me he couldn’t stay afloat much longer without help.