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#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • A decorated former Air Force pilot. A pregnant flight attendant. A dedicated TSA agent. The fates of these three, and many others, converge in Danielle Steel’s gripping new novel—a heart-stopping thriller that engages ordinary men and women in the fight of their lives during a flight from New York to San Francisco.
On a beautiful May morning at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport, two planes have just departed for San Francisco—one a 757, another a smaller Airbus A321. At a security checkpoint, TSA agent Bernice Adams finds a postcard of the Golden Gate Bridge bearing an ambiguous—perhaps ominous—message. Her supervisor dismisses her concerns, but Bernice calls security and soon Ben Waterman arrives. A senior Homeland Security agent, still grappling with guilt after a disastrous operation in which hostages were killed, Ben too becomes suspicious. Who left the postcard behind, which flight is that person on, and what exactly does the message mean?
As Ben scans the passenger manifests, his focus turns to the A321, with Helen Smith as its senior pilot. Helen’s military service and her tenure with the airline have been exemplary. But her husband’s savage death in Iraq was more than anyone should bear, leaving her widowed with three children. A major film star is on board. So is an off-duty pilot who has just lost his forty-year career. So is a distraught father, traveling with the baby son he has abducted from his estranged wife. Sifting through data and relying on instinct, Ben becomes convinced that someone on Helen’s plane is planning something terrible. And he’s right. Passengers, crew, and experts on the ground become heroes out of necessity to try to avert tragedy at the eleventh hour.
In her stunning novel, Danielle Steel combines intense action with stories of emotionally rich, intertwined lives. As the jet bears down on its destination of San Francisco, strangers are united, desperate choices are made, and futures will be changed forever by a handful of accidental heroes.
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Accidental Heroes
Bernice Adams woke up, as she usually did, just before the alarm went off, so she didn’t wake her six-year-old son, Toby. Some maternal instinct pulled her out of her dreams before the buzzer sounded. She smiled as she looked at him sleeping next to her in the queen-sized bed that had been a lucky find in a secondhand furniture store. She’d bought a new mattress for it that they had tried out together, and Toby said it felt like a cloud. It was a stretch for their budget, but she decided it was worth it. Toby needed to get to school rested so he could pay attention and do well. She wanted him to have every advantage she could give him.
She had managed to furnish the small one-bedroom apartment with hand-me-down furniture and what she found on the sidewalk on Tuesday nights, when people left out big furniture items they didn’t want, for garbage pickup the next morning. It was always a treasure hunt. She had found her night tables that way, a blue dresser, and the kitchen table they ate on every day. The Formica was chipped around the edges, but the bright red looked cheerful in their tiny kitchen, barely big enough for her to cook in. She had painted the walls and some of the furnishings herself, and found the living room rug at Goodwill. All put together, it looked homey and cozy, and she had framed the Spider-Man posters Toby loved for their bedroom, and there was one of Batman and Robin over their bed.
Bernice was a single mother. Toby’s father had taken off when she got pregnant at nineteen. She’d been working as a waitress by day, and going to City College of New York by night. She hadn’t seen him since, although she’d heard that he was married now and had three other children. She wanted no contact with him. He’d been a smooth talker, she’d fallen for him, and the pregnancy was an accident. He had disappeared as fast as he could. She’d had Toby when she was twenty, and had managed parenthood on her own ever since.
Bernice was a survivor. More than that, she wanted to make something of herself, and set an example for her son, to show him that he didn’t have to be limited by the world he was born into, and with an education, he could have a good job and a good life one day. It was what she aspired to herself.
She’d been raised in foster homes after her parents died when she was in her early teens. Some of the homes were awful, and some of them were okay, but she was determined that nothing like it would ever happen to her boy. Bernice’s only relative, her brother, Clive, had been in and out of prison for a dozen years since he turned eighteen, for credit card fraud, grand theft auto, and drug dealing, all the means of making a living he had learned on the streets. She hadn’t seen him since she was sixteen and he was twenty, fresh out of prison on parole . She didn’t want to see him again, and he knew nothing about his nephew. Clive wasn’t an evil man, and he’d been nice to her, to the best of his ability. He just didn’t know how to get out of the trap he had grown up in. She wanted her life and her son’s to be different.
The building they lived in was clean, and lived in by respectable families, on 125th Street. It had been built in the 1930s and must have been beautiful then. What had once been spacious, handsome apartments had been broken into small ones for low rents. Now it was shabby, and the people who had lived there, and could, had moved downtown. Other buildings near her had been renovated, and parts of her neighborhood were slowly becoming gentrified. She’d been fortunate to find an apartment she could afford on her salary. She managed to get by and take care of her son.
After graduating from City College, she had worked for TSA security at JFK International Airport for the past five years, checking passengers as they came through the lines, observing them keenly, directing them to the body-scan machines, and doing pat-downs when instructed to do so. She was also enrolled in law school online. In Bernice’s mind, the secret to everything was education and hard work, and no one was going to cheat her of that. And she reminded Toby of it every day, whenever she could.
She hated to leave his small, warm body, curled up against her back as she got out of bed and headed to the shower to get ready for work. When she left at four o’clock, she would leave him with her neighbor, who would take him to school with her own children. Bernice worked a 5:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. shift, which gave her just enough time to pick Toby up at school herself, and be with him for the rest of the day. She taught him the extra lessons he didn’t have at school yet, and then did her own homework for law school after she made dinner and put him to bed. She tried to be asleep by nine-thirty or ten, since she had to get up at three-thirty to get ready for work. She ate breakfast on the train to save time. She didn’t go out with friends and hadn’t been to a movie in years. Her whole life was her son, her job, and her studies so that one day they’d have more than that, and he would have a real future. They talked about it a lot, even though he was only six. She talked to him like an adult and told him she was going to be a lawyer and work in a law firm downtown when she graduated. That was her dream. And dreams became realities if you worked hard enough to achieve them. She said it to Toby almost like a mantra.
She showered, had a cup of coffee, and put on her uniform. Bernice was African American. She was a pretty woman and wore her hair in neat braids tied at the nape of her neck. She had a slim figure and watched her weight, and looked nice in the TSA uniform. Several men she worked with had asked her on dates, many of them married, and she always turned them down. She’d gone out briefly with one of her single male colleagues right after she started working for TSA. It hadn’t turned out well, and she hadn’t made that mistake again. She hadn’t had a serious date in years, or even a casual one in the last two. There would be plenty of time for that, she told herself, when she had a better job after law school. She didn’t love working for TSA, but it paid the rent and bought their food, and gave her the time she needed to study for her law classes. Her schedule was good for her.
When she was dressed, she rolled Toby, still asleep, into his Spider-Man sleeping bag, carried him to the neighbor’s, and knocked. She didn’t ring the bell, so she wouldn’t wake the other children. They didn’t have to be in school until eight o’clock. Toby woke up in his mother’s arms just before the door opened.
“Why do we have to get up so early?” he complained, burrowing against her and closing his eyes again. It was still dark outside and would be for several hours.
“Because I have to go to work and do my job,” she said, kissing his forehead, “and you have to go to school so that one day you can have a good job too, like a doctor or a lawyer,” she added, programming him early.
“I want to be a policeman,” he grumbled as the door opened, and their neighbor took him in her arms and smiled at Bernice. She knew what a good mother she was and admired her for it. Toby was almost back to sleep as Bernice handed him off. He had a few more hours to doze before he had to get up, have breakfast, and get dressed for school.
“Have a nice day,” their neighbor whispered and gently closed the door. She took Toby in every morning for free, as a favor to Toby’s mother. On weekend nights, Bernice often babysat her two children in exchange, and let them sleep on her couch or in the bed with Toby, and slept on the couch herself, if their mother had a big date. They did what they could to help each other, two women alone with their children. The neighbor had a son and a daughter close to Toby’s age, and the three children were best friends, which worked well too.
It was a beautiful May morning as Bernice left the building, and she thought of the church day camp she had enrolled Toby in for the summer. There would be lots of things for him to do there. She had saved enough money to pay for it by skipping lunch for five months. The money was in her bank account now, and they had already accepted him.
Bernice rushed to catch the first train she took to work every day, and arrived at the airport right on time. She put her purse in her locker, and reported for duty at JFK airport on the dot at 5:30 a.m. She didn’t love her job, but it was a good means to an end, and she reminded herself daily that it wouldn’t be forever. Once she graduated from law school, she’d have better opportunities and could look for a job in a law firm, even as a paralegal until she passed the bar.
But for now, her daily work life was rife with petty jealousies, unpleasant supervisors, and angry passengers who didn’t want to take their shoes off and complained when Bernice had to go through their bags, looking for computers or liquids, or because of something they’d seen on the X-ray, like a can of dog food, or a suspicious object, which in most cases turned out to be nothing when they checked. They were trained to look for weapons, materials that could be combined to create explosives, or whatever seemed suspicious on the X-ray screen.
Her current supervisor, Denise Washington, was particularly disagreeable, and it was obvious that she disliked Bernice and everything she stood for. Bernice was too clean-cut and too straight-arrow, and had made the mistake of casually saying one day that she was going through law school online. Denise had been scornful and angry toward her ever since. She hated girls like Bernice, who talked about their bright future as though it were something they could just pluck off a tree. Denise knew better. She had been passed over for promotions for years and she didn’t even care why anymore. In her mind, she was always getting screwed over by some ambitious young woman like Bernice, desperate to get ahead, whatever it took. She was fed up with women like her, had singled Bernice out years before, and treated her with contempt. Bernice had thought of complaining to Denise’s superior but knew it wouldn’t do any good, and she was sure it would make things worse. Denise was an angry, bitter woman. She talked about Bernice behind her back, just loud enough for her to hear. She hated her job, and had never done anything to try to change it. She took out her resentment and frustrations on the people she supervised. Bernice was used to the snide remarks and overt insults, and Denise’s obvious disapproval of her. She was jealous of Bernice, although she could have done the same things herself if she had any interest.
Bernice took her assigned spot in the security area, while Denise glared at her, as usual. Bernice turned her attention to the early passengers heading for their flights, putting their belongings into plastic bins to pass them though the X-ray machine, and then going through the metal detectors and full-body scan in stockings or bare feet.
She saw the first flight crew roll through in uniform minutes after she got there, and noticed that, judging by the stripes on her uniform, a woman in the group was the pilot, which made Bernice smile. She liked to see that.
Danielle Steel has been hailed as one of the world’s most popular authors, with over 650 million copies of her novels sold. Her many international bestsellers include The Good Fight, The Cast, Accidental Heroes, Fall from Grace, Past Perfect, Fairytale, and other highly acclaimed novels. She is also the author of His Bright Light, the story of her son Nick Traina’s life and death; A Gift of Hope, a memoir of her work with the homeless; Pure Joy, about the dogs she and her family have loved; and the children’s books Pretty Minnie in Paris and Pretty Minnie in Hollywood.