Page 57 of Starlit Skies

Font Size:  

Nash pulled his car into a parking spot beside Dale. Schroeder and her sidekick were already out of their car, scanning the surrounding gardens and buildings.

“We should be fairly safe here,” Nash said, when he saw Skylar glance nervously out the window. “Robinson is attending, along with four other officers. This case, and this funeral, are now high profile. The media are already going crazy with all sorts of conspiracy theories about what happened to us up there on the mountain.” Nash stared straight out the windshield as he related the reality to Skylar. “Robinson has only released the bare facts of the crash. He hasn’t made the details available of how the chopper was shot down, or the fact that someone pursued us through the jungle in an attempt to kill us. He doesn’t want it known that the police are hunting a crazed gunman, or that he has Stan the Man in custody.”

Skylar felt uncomfortable when she realized she’d been condemning Robinson as not doing his job properly to protect her and Nash. But perhaps she’d been too wrapped up in her own selfish bubble. They’d kept the TV and the radio off while they had been cooped up at Nash’s place. That sort of thing onlyhelped to fuel her paranoia. She got all the behind-the-scenes news she needed from Nash.

“Wait,” Nash demanded, as she went to open the passenger door.

He got out, pulling on his suit jacket as he moved swiftly around to her side of the car, taking her arm and helping her out, hovering beside her as they walked up the path toward the crematorium. It took her a second to realize he was shielding her with his body. She swiveled her head around, looking for a threat. Shielding from what? Did he really expect the gunman to jump out of the bushes and open fire on them? Did he know about some threat he hadn’t told her about? It was obvious he was prepared to put his body on the line for her. Skylar grunted in frustration and walked a little faster, so that he struggled to keep up with his injured leg. It was petty; she knew. But his overprotectiveness was fast becoming frustrating and downright annoying. Even if a small voice in the back of her head kept telling her how sweet and courageous it was, at the same time.

The crematorium was packed with people, and Skylar dropped her gaze to the floor as she walked up the aisle. Even so, she could still feel people staring, their gazes boring into the back of her head. She passed Robinson seated in the back row, and spotted the other officers stationed in the corners of the room. Nash led her to a chair three rows back, and she sat down just as the rest of her family arrived. Daniella took the chair next to her. Then her mother did something completely out of character. She took Skylar’s hand in her own and patted it, in an awkward, comforting gesture. Her first reaction was to pull her hand away. But she forced herself to leave it resting in her mother’s palm. Daniella had never been an overly affectionate mother, and this sort of public display was almost unheard of. She was clearly trying her best to help Skylar, even though she had no idea where to start.

Nash glanced down at her lap, where her mother still held her hand, and then shot her a sympathetic look, as if he knew how much this was costing her.

Paul’s family filled the first two front rows. There was his girlfriend, Sonia. Paul had showed Skylar a picture of her on the flight over just the other day. They’d only been seeing each other for six months or so, but Paul had said she was the one. Panic filled Skylar’s veins, and she suddenly found it hard to breathe. What must they think of her? Did they even know the full story? Had the police told them everything? She must ask Nash later on. None of the family looked back at her, however, and her trepidation began to subside after a few moments.

Skylar glanced at the front of the chapel, where a priest was milling around a podium, getting ready to start the service. A large, framed photo of Paul sat atop a wooden coffin, draped in flowing bunches of Australian wildflowers.

Paul stared at her from out of the photo. He was smiling, but she could see the censure in his eyes.I would be alive, if it wasn’t for you,they seemed to say.

Oh, shit.

Then the priest began to speak, and the hushed voices of the gathered mourners fell silent. He talked about Paul’s love of flying, how he’d known, even as a boy, it was all he wanted to do.

The room started to close in around Skylar. The sound of gunfire pinging off the metal of the chopper rang in her ears. Paul’s voice, loud and terrified, calling in the Mayday, haunted her. The image she could never clear from her mind, that of Paul’s body crushed beyond recognition by the boulder. Paul hadn’t done anything to deserve this. He’d just been doing his job that day, expecting to go home and lie in the arms of his girlfriend that night. He’d tried to land the chopper safely, to save them all. Where was the fairness in all of this? He was theinnocent bystander who’d been killed. While she and Nash, the intended targets, had survived.

She couldn’t do this.

Her hands began to tremble. Then her whole body started to shake.

Daniella looked at her in bewilderment.

Then a strong arm snaked around her shoulders, and Nash pulled her into his chest. “It’s okay,” he whispered, passing her a handful of tissues. “I’m here. You’re safe. We’re both safe.”

Nash understood.

She hadn’t cried for Paul. For the loss of an innocent life. For all the things he had yet to do. She’d kept the emotions from those few days in the jungle locked away in a vise in her mind. Now all those feelings came tumbling out, like an avalanche rolling downhill, gathering speed, until she was weeping silently.

“Let it out,” Nash said into her ear. There were tears in his eyes, as well. She sobbed into his shoulder.

The rest of the ceremony passed in a blur, as Skylar struggled in her fog of sorrow and guilt. Vaguely, she was aware of Paul’s brother speaking, but she couldn’t remember what he said. Other people around her also dabbed at their eyes with a tissue. Paul had been well liked, and would be sorely missed. She finally managed to get her tears under control and pulled away from Nash’s chest. He let her go, but rested his hand on her thigh, instead.

Slowly, her head began to clear, and she realized the ceremony was over. People were standing up and heading toward the exit, paying their respects on the way out.

The family was holding a wake at Paul’s parents’ place. They were all invited, but Skylar already knew she wouldn’t be able to face them.

“Are you okay, sweetheart?” Her mother never called her sweetheart. It was that, more than anything, that finally brought Skylar back to reality.

“Yes.” She nodded. “I really want to go home, though.”

“Of course, you do,” her mother replied, and shot an expectant look at Nash. “You’ll take her, won’t you?”

“Yes,” he replied stiffly. “Of course, but—”

“Good.” Daniella didn’t want to hear Nash’s reasons for Skylar not returning home any more than she did. They’d rehashed it so many times. Skylar was prepared to take her chances at Stormcloud, and her whole family backed her up on that decision.

Nash shut his mouth with a snap.

“Dale and Steve would like to go to the wake,” Daniella continued. “They want the family to know that Paul meant a lot to us. He was a great pilot, and he gave us an important lifeline between the station and civilization. Is it okay if we don’t come straight home with you?”

Articles you may like