Heartstealer (Women of Character) - By Grace Brannigan

§ Chapter One §

Jacie’s stomach churned as she stared at the ground two thousand feet below. What insanity made her put herself through this punishment―just to prove she wasn’t washed up as a stunt woman?

"Just do it," she muttered. "You've done it thousands of times before. Get your foot out the door and jump."

Automatically, she ran her fingers over her knee support and then the pull ring on her parachute harness. Lastly, she braced the toes of her boots against the door lip.

She had to jump. Skydiving was her life. It had always defined who she was; a member of her family’s business, Aerial Antics. Her brother Con would pull her off this job if he thought she wasn’t ready. She couldn’t go home with her tail between her legs. Her family would try to put her back in cotton wool. Again.

How long did she have to pay for one dumb mistake―two―if she counted the one she’d made thinking Brad loved her.

With a low growl of impatience, she stepped out and an updraft pulled her up and away from the plane. As she plunged downward, a flashback to her parachuting accident thirteen months ago at Angel Falls came dangerously close. She could see again that mountainous ledge of rock, nothing but water and uninhabited jungle below her, the glorious release as she began her freefall, and then her parachute failure. . ..

Her chute opened. Years of training took over and the tightness eased inside her chest. Of course she could do this, she’d been jumping far too long to stop now.

As the ground drew closer she pulled the shroud lines of her chute, spilling air to control her landing.

Clustered dots took on the shapes of people. A lone figure with a cowboy hat stood apart from the rest. An imp of mischief surfaced in Jacie. She’d alter her landing slightly and land near the guy with the cowboy hat.

As her feet touched solid earth a gust of wind lifted and pulled her forward, past the camera crews, past the gathered crowd. She caught a glimpse of surprised faces and then she came to a dead stop as her body lightly impacted with another. She had a fleeting impression of a hat flying through the air and they both fell to the ground in a tangle of arms, legs and billowing parachute.

Arms closed around her and held tight. She squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her forehead into a hard chest. Spicy cologne tantalized her nostrils.

When the rest of her senses kicked in she was amazed to find she lay straddled atop a very male body. Hard chest and long, long legs. The cowboy.

"I guess I came a tad too close to my mark," she managed, barely suppressing her laughter. His arms were like hard bands around her back. She stayed unmoving against a soft shirt, her nose pressed into a dusting of nose-tickling hair. Scents mingled. Horse and leather, that subtle touch of man.

The flapping of her parachute forced her to stop thinking about the body beneath her. She opened her eyes. Her blue and purple chute swept upward, then gently settled to cover them in a cocoon.

"Can I help you, ma'am?" drawled a deep, amused voice in her ear. The hard body beneath her had a sexy-as-all-get out voice to go with it.

Her body did a head to toe shiver. "I think you’ve already helped me land." She levered her body upward. "It seems a shame to move," she added, but peeled herself from that broad chest partially covered by blue cotton. The impact must have torn his buttons loose, because the shirt gaped open. She stared at his flat stomach and then down to his hair dusted navel. They weren't buttons on his shirt, they were snaps.

Jacie studied the wide shoulders, square chin and slightly curved mouth. Lazily she moved on to lean, tanned features. His expression showed tolerance, amusement, interest . . . then a guarded look dropped as hard blue eyes stared at her. Well, it had been interesting until he got that guarded look on his face.

His arms were now straight out on the ground. A soft sound escaped her lips, but no words. Oh dear. She tried again. "S-sorry . . . " she managed faintly, trying not to laugh again. "What an embarrassing first impression this is turning out to be!" He didn’t look amused now, but kind of stiff and probably too much of a gentleman to tell her to get off him.