It was a case of throwing herself out of the plane or never making the jump at all. Lyssa sat with her back against the vibrating fuselage, frozen with fright, ashen-faced, staring. The plane smelled of fear. She had been mistaken about her reservoir of courage. There was little left after the last few years and this jump was going to pull at the corners.
As the plane began to roll forward across the tarmac, Lyssa pinned her thoughts firmly on Bethany and that morning's unexpected invitation. She would have to go for Bethany's sake. The child's sunny face came into mind, her dark hair flying as she ran across the playground to meet Lyssa. This will-o'-the-wisp, unfettered, sweet-smelling child of her body for whom she was going to change her whole life. Her pearl of pleasure.
"Bethany, I'm doing this for you," she breathed.
Lyssa knew it had to happen. She could not carry the burden of Bethany alone any longer. Matthew was kind and loving, the sort of man any woman would be glad to marry. And he loved her, which was surprising considering the kind of mad life she led rushing about to find locations, the stress of keeping her financial head above water, the protective blanket that Bethany needed constantly. Pity she didn't love him.
The plane turned at the end of the runway, ready for take off, and Lyssa felt her stomach heave. What if she said she felt sick? Changed her mind? Had to get off at any cost?
At any cost... that was a joke. Several thousand pounds were riding on her back at this very moment.
The training had been a challenge. She had enjoyed every moment, felt brave and everyone had said she had done well. The practice landings had gone smoothly and the procedure for leaving the aircraft was drilled into her head.
Sponsorship money had rolled in. Her colleagues at the television company were especially generous. She had been amazed as people pledged ten, twenty pounds.
"It's all for a good cause," they said. "And you've got guts, girl. I wouldn't do it for an Emmy Award."
Matthew was less enthusiastic. He had listened to her excited plans with caution. He had taken her hand across the restaurant table and squeezed it gently.
"You don't have to do this," he said. "There are other ways of raising money for RAS research."
"I haven't time," she said firmly. "I have to do it fast. Bethany hasn't the time to wait either. I'm doing it for her and you can't stop me. She always comes first."
"What about me? I shall be worried sick," he said carefully, his handsome face shadowed. "You might get hurt."
Lyssa removed her hand from his clasp and touched his dark hair. He wore it a little on the long side, brushing his collar, long dark lashes framing deep brown eyes. He was good-looking, his face unmarked by any stress. He worked as an accountant in his father's firm and the steps of promotion were marked out for him in concrete. He did not have to worry about the future.
"Don't be daft, Matthew. It's safer than crossing a road. I know what to do. I've been practising for weeks."
He sighed deeply. "I suppose nothing I say will stop you? I don't want my bride on crutches."
"Nothing will happen," said Lyssa, shaking her long reddish-tawny hair. She had been in too much of a hurry that evening to do more than brush it into a sleek tail, tied back with a chiffon scarf.
"Then I'll look after Bethany on Saturday, if that'll help. We'll go somewhere. The zoo."
"That would be wonderful. Thank you, darling. I know I can always rely on you."
Saturday saw her dressed in orange overalls, her kit inspected and passed. She joked with the others, gazed at the clear windswept expanse of wispy blue above her and did not feel connected to it. It was some other sky, some other person.
But now as the plane rumbled over the runway, gathering speed, all Lyssa's courage fled. She had left it somewhere on the ground, in her locker with all the clutter that belonged to Lyssa Pasten – single-parent, high-flying film locations manager for a television company, mother of five-year-old Bethany, who had RAS, fiancée of Matthew Arnold.
The aircraft lifted off into the air and all sensation stopped. The smoothness of the climb did nothing to settle her nerves. Nor did the noise. Everywhere inside the fuselage shook with the powerful thrust of the engines. Her stomach pitched.
"Can I change my mind?" she asked as if it was a joke, but the jumpmaster pretended not to hear her.
The doorway was open and Lyssa could see the patchwork of earth disappearing like a child's toys being cleared away. They went through a thin layer of swirling mist and cloud, then suddenly came out into the brilliant sunshine that had been there all the time. She went a shade of blind, gasped.
Would she feel as nervous on her wedding day? Not long now, only eight weeks, at St Margaret's, Westminster. A big society wedding. She hadn't even got her dress yet. And those weeks, at her frantic rate of living, was a mere flash of time. If she survived today, she thought.
One of the other jumpers gave her the thumbs up sign. She grinned back, nodded, nervously checking straps that had already been checked and rechecked.
She saw the jumpmaster coming towards her, swaying. Surely not that old-fashioned 'ladies first'? She could have done without it at this height.
He bent low and spoke against her ear. "Keep your head up and back arched. A clean exit. You'll be fine. See you in the clubhouse. First in the bar buys the drinks."
Lyssa tried to answer but her voice had deserted her. It was cowering somewhere in her boots. She couldn't remember a single thing that she was supposed to do.
He signalled to her to move to the open doorway. She stumbled forward, her boots leaden with weights. Outside the roaring gale deafened her, her overalls flattened against her body, the wings creaked like a ship at sea. Her goggles misted over then cleared. There was nothing outside. Absolutely nothing. It was space as vast as in a Star Wars film. He was saying something, but she couldn't hear.
"Go. Go! GO!"