An impromptu trip to Australia. Two adults who’d made a pact as kids to remain friends forever. Two precocious children. Two huge unruly dogs. What could possibly go wrong?
Everything. Everything could go wrong. And it did.
When Liam Scott looked up and saw Frankie Thompson standing in the doorway of his office, he’d almost had to pick himself up from the floor. Frankie showing up meant one thing: she needed his help. He’d never been able to turn Frankie down, and he couldn’t turn her down this time, either. Liam would do anything for Frankie—always had, always would.
So, he packed up his kids and took off for Australia. The plan was simple: visit the zoo, maybe do some snorkeling, some outback sightseeing with his children…and spend some time with Frankie.
For her part, Frankie had loved Liam for more than twenty-five years. She’d needed him and he’d come, just as she’d known he would.
And now they were stranded af in the middle of nowhere, and it was all Frankie’s fault.
But what if getting lost meant finally finding it all?
CHAPTER 1 – Scotty
The pops and flashes of cameras are nearly blinding as our handler opens the door and ushers us toward the front of the room. I lift my hand to shield my eyes. Immediately, questions ring out, before we can even take our seats. Frankie gives me a look, and I give her what I hope is an almost imperceptible nod. Yes, I hate this as much as you do. Yes, I want to go home. No, I don’t want to do this.
We take our seats behind a formal table draped with cloths, with a pitcher of water and glasses in the middle, and I can’t help but think how much we needed that water when all this started. The pitcher sparkles and a dewy drop of condensation slides down the side until it dampens the tablecloth, spreading through the fibers like vines. There was a time when I would have bent and licked the tablecloth, trying to get that precious little bit of moisture.
The attorneys that Frankie’s grandmother sent as well as the representatives from the charter company all stand to the left of the podium, out of the way but not out of sight. We know they are there, and we know—because we have already been warned—that they will stop the incoming questions if we don’t answer appropriately or if the reporters get too personal with their questions.
Ever since our ordeal became public, we are constantly bombarded by the media at home, on the street, everywhere—and even the kids aren’t safe from it. They told us that if we agreed to do this press conference, we could finally have some peace. These particular reporters have promised to tell our true story.
Our handler, who I’m sure was hired by someone with bigger interests than ours, steps up to the podium. “Liam and Frances will take questions now,” she says quietly.
It feels weird hearing my real name. I’ve been Scotty since we took off on that ill-fated flight. Frankie’s Scotty.
I reach beneath the table skirt for Frankie’s hand, but she brushes my questing fingers away, scolding me without even saying a word. I pull my hand back, and I run my hands up and down my new dress pants, wiping the sweat from my palms.
“Before this fateful experience, you guys already knew one another, correct?” one of the gathered reporters calls out. “You two weren’t strangers.”
Frankie looks at me and I see a small smile tilt her lips. “We have been best friends for a long time. A really long time. Since we were young.” Her brow wrinkles. “What were we, twelve?”
“You were twelve.”
Frankie grins at me and rolls her eyes.
“I was twelve and a half,” I remind her.
* * *
The first time I ever saw Frances “Frankie” Thompson, she was sitting astride a metal propane gas tank pretending it was a horse. She was wearing a pink baseball cap with her ponytail pushed through the hole in the back closure. That poor little hat was threadbare, but Frankie loved it. It could barely contain the curls that Frankie sported. The rim of the hat was worn and frayed almost as badly as her shoes, but Frankie didn’t care. She was twelve and I was twelve and a half and I fell head over heels for her at first sight.
Frankie and I didn’t come from the same kind of background—her dad had money, and mine lived paycheck to paycheck—but we’d found a common ground quickly. She had been staying with her grandmother during summer break, and her grandmother lived next door to us.
“Get on out there and introduce yourself,” my mother had teased from her spot in front of the kitchen sink where she was washing dishes.
“I don’t want to,” I grumbled. But I didn’t step away from the window.
“You can’t just watch the world go by, Liam,” Mom warned. “Get on out there. You know everybody but Frankie.”
I frowned. “Frankie?”
“Her name is Frances, but everyone calls her Frankie, or so Mrs. Thompson said.”
“Frankie,” I whispered.
“She’s staying with her grandmother for a few weeks this summer. She won’t even be here long, so you had better enjoy it while you can.” Mom threw a dishtowel at me, hitting my shoulder. “Go!” she said. “Scram. I don’t want to see you until dinner. Bring Frankie back to eat dinner with us if she wants to come.”
I had opened the backdoor and walked out, feeling like I was going to my execution. But when I got to the edge of the yard, one of the neighborhood boys I knew well called me over, giving me an excuse to walk over there where she was. Then she turned and smiled at me, and I was a goner. She was missing a tooth right in front to the right of her two front teeth. She grinned around the gap. I’d stopped losing my teeth a year ago. Maybe she was a late bloomer or whatever my mom called it.
“You want a turn?” Frankie called out as I walked close to where the small group of kids was playing in her grandmother’s backyard. She dismounted from the gas tank with all the grace of a twelve-year-old tomboy, and she motioned for me to go ahead.
“I’m okay,” I said quietly.
I had been watching Frankie from out our back window all morning. She had an ease with people that made everyone an instant and trusted friend, and I became one too on that very day. If only I’d known how much trouble it would get me into, I’d have stayed far, far away from Frankie Thompson.
Or maybe I wouldn’t. Who knows? I can’t take back anything I’ve done. I can’t bite words back out of the air, nor can I rewind the tape that was our lives together. If I could, I might have done things a little differently.
Or who knows, maybe I wouldn’t have changed a thing. I’d fallen in love with Frankie when I was twelve and a half, and I’d never really fallen out of it. So, when she came knocking on my door on a Friday morning twenty-five years later, I smiled, because it was good to see her. It was really good to see her.
“Knock, knock,” a voice called out. I looked up to find Frankie Thompson standing in the open doorway. My breath stuck in my chest, and I sputtered as I choked on my own spit. Frankie always had been able to take my breath away.
“Frank?” I said quietly, sure my eyes were deceiving me. I hadn’t seen Frankie in many years, yet I’d know her anywhere, and there she was standing in the doorway of my office.
“Stand up and give me a hug, asshole,” she said as she walked in. She was wearing a pair of cut-off jeans, sneakers, a t-shirt with a faded concert logo on it, and a blue baseball cap. It wasn’t ragged like her old pink one, which she’d worn until her parents’ maid had thrown it out and replaced it with a new one she refused to wear. She’d told me about it in a letter she’d written to me the winter after our first summer together. She’d cried over that cap.
I stood up, my heart racing as she rounded the corner of my desk. Even as an adult, she was still the same precocious girl I’d known and loved.
She smelled like soap and sunshine. Frankie always did. I sucked in a breath of her as she wrapped her arms around me. Frankie hugged just like she did everything else—with gusto. I wrapped my arms around her as she hugged my waist, her face settling against my chest as she held on a few seconds longer. I palmed the back of her cap, and she tilted her face to look up at me, without releasing her hold.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I asked, somewhat out of breath.
She lifted her eyebrows at me. “Can’t I stop by and say hello to an old friend?”
“Any time!” I assured her and motioned for her to take the chair across from my desk as I sagged back into my seat. But, of course, Frankie didn’t do it. Instead, she walked around my office, taking in the pictures on the walls and shelves one by one.
“This is your place?” she asked, as she looked around.
“Yep. All mine.” I’d just bought the little airstrip with a big metal building that housed my small planes.
“I knew you’d do it one day,” she said with such conviction that I felt my chest expand more than a bit with pride. I’d wanted to be a pilot since I was big enough to take my first flight with my dad. He was a pilot, too, and he dusted crops, did air surveillance, flew small charter flights, things like that. I wanted to be just like him. “You know, Scotty,” she said, narrowing one eye at me as she waited for a beat, “when you joined the military, I thought you’d turn that into a career.”
Frankie was the only one who’d ever gotten away with calling me “Scotty.” Other kids had tried to use it after hearing her say it, but it had never seemed right except with her. My name is Liam Scott. But I had become “Scotty” to her right off the bat.
She’d just casually used the name I hadn’t heard in so very long. “Scotty” took me back. Years. I shook my head. She’d asked about my flying. Right. Flying was what I’d always wanted to do. It was the only thing. “The military taught me how to fly,” I said with a shrug. “But I didn’t like being away from home even when I didn’t want to be. When the kids came along…” I shrugged again and let my sentence trail off.
She grinned. “How are the kids?”
Although we hadn’t seen each other in years, we’d kept in touch through sporadic phone calls and texts every now and then. I’d kept her up to date with photos and news. Because that’s what friends do. So, she knew about my children—and my failed marriage. “Tanner is fourteen now and he hates my guts on principle. And Livvie is eight. She’s still a delight, thank God.” I stared at her. “How are you?”
Her smile fell away. “Good,” she said quickly. A little too quickly.
She took her time staring at my photos one by one. “And how’s…oh, what’s her name…” She snapped her fingers and looked at me. “Gloria? Is that right? How’s Gloria?”
I grinned in spite of myself. “She’s fine.”
“She’s fine,” she mocked, deepening her voice.
“Be nice,” I warned. But secretly, I was pleased that Frankie had no love for Gloria, even though they’d only met once years ago. I suspected Frankie would take a dislike to any woman I was with, and that warmed my heart.
She picked up a paperweight from my desk and started tossing it from hand to hand as she finally sat down across from me. Even after twenty-five years, I still knew her well, and something was up. It was good to see her, of course, but she didn’t just happen to be in the neighborhood.
“Frank?” I said. She didn’t look at me. I let out a long sigh. “Frankie!” I said a little more loudly.
She set the paperweight back on my desk. “Yes?” she said, expelling a breath.
“Why are you here, Frankie?” I asked succinctly.
“I need a favor, Scotty,” she said, her voice tiny and high-pitched. Almost meek.
The Frankie I knew and loved was anything but meek. So, this immediately made me suspicious.
“So, you only show up when you need a favor?” I teased. I sat back and crossed my arms, staring at her, still in awe that she was even here. “Okay, I’ll bite. What do you need?”
“Well, it’s kind of a long story,” she said, wincing as she said it.
CHAPTER TWO – Frankie
I hated lying to Scotty, but I knew that if I told him the truth, he’d never agree to help me. “So, do you remember how, back when my father died, my evil step-monster contested his will?” I’d told him all about it on one of our rare phone calls. “She won and she got everything.” Well, except for my trust. She couldn’t touch that.
“Yes.” He folded his hands in front of him on the desktop. I had all his attention. “She claimed he was incompetent when he left you everything, right?”
“Right.” She snorted. “My father was not a nice man, but he was far from incompetent. He’d found out she was sleeping with the guy that ran the stables and he cut her out of his will. Anyway, after he died, she contested it, had it overturned, and she got everything. But I really only wanted one thing. Well, two actually.”
“The dogs?” Scotty asked, intuitive as ever.
My father had two really expensive—and ginormous—Tibetan Mastiffs. The sire and dam were champions, and they’d come from an even longer line of champions. He’d bought them on a whim when they were puppies from two different breeders of championship puppies. They had been born within days of one another. He’d bought them right after he’d had his first heart attack, when he couldn’t work anymore, and he thought the dogs would be good company. A new hobby. I’d gone to stay with him during that time, and I’d gotten really close to the dogs. I’d spent almost all my time with them, and every time I saw them it was like I was coming back home again.
I nodded. “The dogs.” I sucked in a breath. “It’s a great big long-drawn-out story that I know you don’t have time to listen to. Yadda, yadda, yadda, whatever.” I made jazz hands in the air. “Anyway, to make a long story short, I have to fly to Australia to pick up the dogs.”
“Um…congratulations?” He sounded skeptical. “And why are the dogs in Australia?”
“After my dad died, the step-monster packed everything up and moved to the estate in Australia.”
“With the horse trainer?”
I shrugged. “How should I know? I just know that’s where they are. That’s where the dogs are.” I leaned my elbows on his desk so I could get closer to him. “Don’t you see, Scotty? I can get the dogs back.” I winced again. “I just need some help.”
His brow furrowed. “What kind of help?”
“Well, they’re Tibetan Mastiffs. And my step-monster only wanted them because they are worth a small fortune. But she took them and put them in a building on the back of the property, where she plans to breed them, and she ignores them, and they’re living in deplorable conditions. She’s abusing them, Scotty. I have to get them back.” I tried not to sound desperate, but it was hard. Mainly because I was desperate.
“So, what do you need me for?”
“I rented a plane coming out of Australia so we can move the dogs back to the States.”
“Why can’t they fly commercial?” he asked. His brow made that little furrow again.
“Because they’re Tibetan Mastiffs. A lot of airlines won’t fly them. Plus, they wanted me to add all kinds of insurance on them.” I couldn’t exactly add insurance on dogs that weren’t mine. I couldn’t get the appropriate vet checks or flight clearance. There were a lot of reasons why I couldn’t do this the legal way, most of which I didn’t want to explain. I patted my hands on the desk, trying to contain my excitement. “So, can you help me?”
He sat quietly and stared at me for so long that I grew uncomfortable. “Frank…” He shook his head and sighed.
“My dad wanted me to have them,” I put in quickly. “Not her. You know that. And now I can get them. I already made the arrangements for the plane. I just need a pilot. So, you and I can go together to Australia on commercial flights, then we can go to the airfield, where they’ll already be loaded on a plane, and you can fly them right back home. With me.”
“Something doesn’t sound right, Frankie,” he said, and he shook his head slowly. “Plus, I have my kids for the summer. I’m sorry, but…no.”
I hated hearing the word no. “You can bring the kids with you! I’ll pay for their flights. Maybe go to the zoo or something while you’re there. Take them snorkeling. An outback adventure. It’s Australia, Scotty! So much to see and do. And I’d love to see your children again. It’s been so long. The years just keep slipping by…”
“I don’t know,” he said slowly, shaking his head.
“We can take the long way back,” I tried. “We can make a stop in England and show the kids all the places we visited that time we went backpacking through Europe. Don’t you remember how much fun that was?” We would have to stop for refueling anyway. We could just go west instead of east.
He still looked skeptical. “What if she won’t give you the dogs?”
I huffed. “Those dogs belong with me. I’d like to see her stop me from taking them.”
“I don’t know, Frankie. As fond as you are of them, those dogs are still property, and those particular dogs are worth enough to make it a felony to steal them. You can’t just take them. Not to mention animal quarantine laws—”
I waved that off. “I’ve got it all worked out. Trust me.”
He scoffed. “Famous last words.”
I rolled my eyes. “Would I lie to you, Scotty?”
I would, and he knew I would. I knew I would. We both knew I would. I batted my eyelashes at him.
“Frank,” he groaned, letting his head fall back.
“Please, Scotty?” I wasn’t above begging.
CHAPTER THREE – Scotty
“Can you tell us about the day the plane went down?” someone asks.
I look at the attorneys and one of them gives me a subtle nod. I pull the microphone that rests on the tabletop toward me. “It was a Tuesday,” I say.
Frankie lets out a nervous titter. I look at her, and she motions for me to continue.
“We started in Australia,” I say.
“What was your purpose for being in Australia?” someone else calls out.
I look to Frankie because this is her arena. She explains, “I was moving two dogs from there to my home in the States.” She jerks a thumb in my direction. “He was flying the plane.”
Someone chuckles. “We can assume you’re not talking about tiny little house dogs when you say you were moving dogs?”
She shakes her head, as a grin tugs at her lips. “No, not house dogs. They’re a pair of Tibetan Mastiffs.” Her smile doesn’t fade. “Such beautiful animals.” No one asks what happened to the dogs and for that I am grateful. “We were taking the long way back, planning to make a stop in England where we wanted to stay for a week before coming all the way home.”
“Can you tell us what happened before the plane went down?” another calls out.
I see Frankie’s eyebrows pull together.
“We lost fuel,” I explain. “We lost fuel quickly. All of a sudden, we didn’t have enough, and we couldn’t turn back.”
“Tell us about how you felt before the flight. Did you have any worries? Or did you know you were setting yourself up for failure when you boarded a plane that hadn’t been serviced adequately?”
The charter company’s attorney strides toward the mic. “There’s no evidence that the plane wasn’t serviced adequately,” he states.
“Yet the plane went down in the Indian Ocean.” The reporter glances down at a paper in his hands. “The preliminary investigation cites a lack of fuel as the cause of the crash.”
“Yes, that’s correct,” the attorney replies.
“What actually was the cause of the crash?”
He clears his throat. “We have no way of knowing that. We have not recovered the plane.”
“When did you two know things were going to go wrong?” someone else calls out.
I look at Frankie. “We knew as soon as it was too late to turn back,” I reply.
She nods and stares at the water pitcher. “We thought we were home free. But we weren’t.”
* * *
“I thought this flight was supposed to be on a real plane,” I muttered. It was supposed to be a small passenger plane with a large cargo area in the back. Instead, this was a Vietnam-era plane with most of the seats removed to make room for two large animal cages in the rear.
“This is a real plane,” the representative from the charter company said as he passed me the preflight paperwork. He wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead. He’d sweated through his shirt in several places. “It’s just an older plane. Still safe. It’ll get you where you need to go.”
“Frankie’s not going to like this,” I said more to myself than to him. I heard the clank of a door shutting and locking, and I looked over. “Good grief, are we carrying dogs or horses?” I watched workmen move two big cages, each with a pacing animal inside, into the belly of the plane. They fumbled and cursed, and Frankie kept correcting their actions with snaps of her fingers and muttered oaths. “Frankie approved this plane?” I asked the rep, sticking my chin out toward where Frankie stood giving orders, wearing a pair of jeans, hiking boots, and another colorful t-shirt with a band logo.
“Frankie was willing to take what we offered, considering what she’s doing with it.” He sniffed and swiped his hand across the back of his sweaty neck.
I frowned. “What do you mean?” He ignored my question, so I signed the last of the paperwork and did my pre-flight inspections outside the plane.
“I hope she can handle those animals if something goes wrong,” he said.
I grinned. “Nothing goes wrong on my flights.”
He rolled his eyes. He caught Frankie’s attention and motioned her over. She looked toward the plane where the big dogs were now safely stowed, then at the charter rep. “What is it?” she asked. She glanced impatiently at her watch, her dark lashes falling against her cheeks.
“I just wanted to wish you a safe journey—”
Frankie completely ignored him and focused on me. “Are you ready to go?” she asked.
“Are you in a hurry?” I tossed back.
She looked at her watch again. “Actually, I am. The dogs are going to get warm back there.”
“Ready when you are,” I replied. I dusted my hands together, even though they weren’t dirty. My phone rang in my pocket, and I pulled it out to look at the number.
She glanced at my phone. “Do you need to get that?”
I shook my head. “No. It’s just Gloria.” I did not need to talk to my ex-wife. We’d said everything that needed to be said last week when she’d left the kids with me for the summer. And none of it had been pleasant.
“Let’s go, then, before the dogs get too hot.”
We entered the plane, and she was startled only momentarily when she saw the two children sitting there in the front row. “Holy crap,” she muttered. “I completely forgot for a minute that they would be here.” She glanced from them to me and back.
Frankie and I had ended up flying out here separately. Frankie came a week ago since she said she had a lot of paperwork to handle before we could move the dogs. I hated that the kids had to fly so far, but I also wasn’t fond of leaving my kids at home just to do Frankie a favor when I didn’t get to see them all that often. So, the kids and I had turned this into an adventure. We’d gone to the zoo in Sydney, and we’d done a lot of sightseeing. The kids had a grand old time, and I was gratified that they were experiencing something new. With me.
“You still owe me for their plane fare.” Frankie knew I didn’t give a damn about plane fare. I gestured toward the kids. “These are my kids, Tanner and Livvie. They’ve grown a bit since you last saw them.” Frankie had met them a couple of times throughout the years, but Frankie’s visits were just like Frankie—sporadic and spontaneous.
So, it wasn’t like she was “Aunt Frankie” or anything like that, but the kids knew who she was. I jerked my thumb toward her. “Kids, you remember Frankie, right?”
Olivia, who we called Livvie, at the age of eight, was still fun to be around. She lifted her hand and waved at Frankie, and Frankie wiggled her fingers in return. My son said nothing, which was pretty normal for him. He scowled and brooded and wandered around staring at his phone most of the time. At the age of fourteen, he pretty much hated my guts. My friends with adult children kept telling me that by the time they hit twenty-five, you started to like them again. I wasn’t so sure.
“They’re spending the summer with me,” I explained to Frankie. “Remember, we talked about this.”
She nodded. “Of course, I remember.”
“Forced exile,” Tanner groaned.
“You’ll survive,” I tossed back.
What I wasn’t sure about was whether or not I would survive.
The plane had two rows of seats, each with two seats side-by-side, in front of the cargo area. The metal cages took up the entire rear of the plane. One of the dogs growled as I walked around and made sure that the safety equipment was in place.
“Are they yours?” Livvie asked Frankie, her voice quiet.
“Yes, they are now,” Frankie said. “They were my father’s, and then he died.” She let out a breath. “Long story. I’ll tell it to you later.”
“They can’t get out of there, can they?” I asked.
She shook her head. “No.”
“If they did, what would happen?” Tanner asked.
“They’d try to eat you for dinner,” she said, deadpan. She looked toward the cages. “We didn’t feed them today because we were afraid they would throw up on the flight. So, they’ll be extra hungry.”
I couldn’t tell if she was serious or not. Tanner grinned. He appreciated sarcasm in any form. But Livvie leaned closer to Tanner. I just shook my head and finished my pre-flight checklist. “Frankie, do you want to sit up front with me?” I asked absently, the same way I asked every passenger if the plane was almost empty.
Her eyebrows shot up and I immediately couldn’t help but think that this woman could still carry on an entire conversation with those eyebrows alone. “Do you need me to sit up front with you?” she retorted.
I shook my head. “Not particularly.”
“Then I’ll stay back here.”
“Tanner, do you want to sit up front?” I asked him.
“No.” He stared out the window at nothing.
I heaved out a sigh. “Livvie?” I asked. She shook her head. “Okay, then. Everybody buckle up.” I made my way to my seat. Frankie gave me a smart salute, which was more than a little irritating, before she sat down and did what I asked.
I buckled up, put on my headset, got my take-off instructions from air traffic control, and we began to taxi.
“Is this plane okay?” Frankie called out.
“It’s fine,” I called back. If she’d wanted to talk, why had she sat back there?
“But you do know how to fly this one, right?” she yelled.
I bit back my smart-ass answer. “I wouldn’t be sitting here if I didn’t.” I turned to look at her, and I saw her white-knuckling the armrests, as the big dogs paced from one side of their cages to the other and back. “I’ll get you there in one piece,” I said. I winked at Livvie, who smiled back at me.
“Have you ever flown a plane like this?” Frankie called out as we slowly turned to get into position to hit the runway.
I didn’t answer.
“He flew planes in the military,” I heard Tanner say when I didn’t answer. “He can fly anything.”
I suddenly felt like a jackass, but I didn’t know why. Something wasn’t right about this flight, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. As we lifted off, I looked down to find the airfield filled with Australian police vehicles. I lifted us up just as I noticed a few officers pointing in our direction.
“Frankie!” I yelled. She unbuckled and came to sit next to me.
“Um, yeah,” she said. “About that…”
“Frank!” I barked, turning to look at her face. “Please tell me you didn’t steal this plane.”
“No, I rented it.”
“Then why are the police here? Does it have anything to do with the cargo on this plane?”
She bit her lower lip and said nothing.
I glared at her. “I suggest you start talking.”
“I rented the plane. I didn’t steal it.” She sucked her bottom lip between her teeth and chewed on it. And then she admitted, “But I might have stolen the dogs.” She winced.
“You did what?”
“I stole the dogs.”
“Frankie…” I shook my head, gritting my teeth until my jaw ached. “You stole the dogs?”
She nodded, gnawing on her lower lip. “I’m sorry,” she finally blurted out.
“I’m sorry, Scotty! I…” She waited a beat. “I thought we would be in the air before the step-monster realized the dogs were gone. I really did!”
“Frankie,” I said, “why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t think you’d help me if you knew,” she admitted sheepishly.
Damn right I wouldn’t. “You put my kids in danger, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to forgive you for that.”
She unbuckled and went back to sit with the kids, because I didn’t have anything else to say to her. After we stabilized, I turned to look back. She stared out the window at the open water. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” I heard Tanner say.
“Beautiful and scary all at the same time,” she replied, raising her voice so he could hear her.
It really was.