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People who talked about the excitement and glamour of business travel had obviously never done much of it.
Traveling alone was the worst, Diana thought, as she boarded the plane from New York to Denver. She hated slogging through airports by herself, spending endless hours sitting in uncomfortable chairs at the gates and knowing no one would be waiting for her at her destination. Then there were smaller annoyances, such as having to heft her own luggage into the overhead bin.
When she'd decided to buy that ceramic carousel music box at the baby boutique off Broadway, she hadn't considered how much heavier it would make the suitcaseand how impossible it would be for her seven-months-pregnant self to lift it.
"Let me help you with that."
A dark-haired man rose from his aisle seat. For a moment, their eyes locked and Diana caught her breath. He had eyes as blue as a Colorado sky, and she felt the impact of his gaze way down in her stomacha giddy fluttering not unlike those first movements of the baby inside her.
The stranger easily lifted the suitcase into the bin, his white oxford shirt stretching across his broad shoulders. Diana contemplated those shoulders, mentally measuring their width, imagining she knew exactly how the smooth cloth over taut muscle would feel beneath her hand.
The fantasy startled her. She almost laughed out loud at the absurdity of it. Even before her pregnancy, she had never been in the habit of lusting after strangers in airports or elsewhere. But even if she'd suddenly decided to develop a hitherto unexplored wild side, she couldn't imagine that her present condition would make her an object of desire for most men.
She realized theman was looking at her again, those blue eyes burning straight into hers with a hint of anticipation? She had to glance away and attempt to regain her composure. "Thank you," she said, a bit breathlessly.
"Don't mention it." He started to sit again, and she glanced at her boarding pass to check her seat number. And had to choke back more surprised laughter. "I have the window seat," she said. "This one. Right by you." Did he think she was an idiot, babbling like this?
"No problem." He stepped back and allowed her to squeeze past.
Airplanes were definitely not made to accommodate bellies. And she wasn't even that big. Good thing this was her last flight until after the baby was born. She smoothed the tunic sweater over her abdomen a little self-consciously as she sat. Showing off a baby bump might be fashionable these days, but she still felt protective of herself. Not everyone reacted kindly to the lack of a ring on her finger.
She managed to shove her carry-on under the seat in front of her and buckle her seat belt, all the while concentrating on not staring at the man in the aisle seat. Amazingly enough, the seat between them stayed empty, a rare luxury these days. At least now she could indulge herself watching him out of the corner of her eye. As her mother always said, just because she wasn't interested in swimming in the ocean didn't mean she couldn't enjoy the view.
Once they were airborne, Diana reclined her seat slightly and eased her feet out of her low-heeled loafers. That was another side effect of pregnancy she hadn't anticipatedflying made her feet swell.
She glanced over and found him studying her, concern in his eyes. "Traveling is always tiring, I think," she said. She smoothed the tunic once more. "But especially now. This is my last trip before the baby is born."
"Ah. When are you due? That is if you don't mind my asking."
The hesitancy behind his question charmed her. "Not at all," she said. "She's due in about eight weeks."
"A girl." He smiled. "I have a daughter."
"How old is she?"
"Kinsey is six." His smile vanished, replaced by a sadness so intense it made Diana's throat tighten. "She lives with her mother in Paris. I've just come from there. My first visit since they moved."
"That must be difficult for you, having her so far away."
He nodded, the muscles of his jaw working as if he was struggling to suppress strong emotion. "When I left her, she was crying. It was all I could do not to break down, too."
Diana wasn't used to men who were so open about their emotions. Her ex-husband Richard's idea of expressing his feelings was to thump his sons on the back or to swear more colorfully than usual. "I'm sure it means a lot to her, knowing you went all the way to Paris to see her," she said.
He nodded, though she suspected it was more out of politeness than out of any belief in the truth of her words. His obvious sorrow touched her, but after a moment, he visibly pulled himself together. "I'm Jason Benton," he said, offering his hand.
"Diana Shelton." His handshake was firm and warm. A thrill raced through her at the contact. Was her reaction only because she had been alone for the past few months or was there more going on here?
"Were you in New York on business or pleasure?" he asked.
"Business," she said. "Though I did manage to do some shopping, hence the extra-heavy suitcase."
"Do you live in Denver?"
She nodded. "And you?"
"In Evergreen. I'm superintendent of a Montessori school."
"I know exactly where that is." The town in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains was less than an hour's drive from her home in a Denver suburb. "I visited the school briefly several years ago, when I was first starting my business." She searched in her purse for a business card. "I design playscapes." Her designs had been built in schools, shopping centers, rec centers and parks in half a dozen states. Richard used to joke about his wife's job "playing with children." Of course, he hadn't objected to the money she brought in.
"Your children must love your job," Jason said. "Do they get to test all your designs?"
"Actually, this is my first child." She rested her hand on her bump.
He hid his surprise well. At forty, she knew she was older than most first-time mothers. "I have three stepchildren," she said. "Though they're all grown now."
"You and your husband must be excited about the new arrival," he said.
"Actually, we're divorced. It's a long story."
She waited for him to add something about how brave she wasas if it took particular courage to do something when there was no other choice. Richard, who was fifteen years her senior and viewed the three children from his first marriage as burdens to be endured, had no desire to raise a fourth child at a time when he was contemplating retirement. He'd ordered her to choose between him and the baby she carried, and what little feeling she'd had left for him had died then and there.
"Divorce is never easy," she said. "But sometimes it's for the best." Every week, it seemed, she discovered new truths in that old cliché.
"Our divorce was my wife's idea, not mine," Jason said grimly. "But as you say, it was probably for the best. Except for our daughter."
"That is difficult," she said. "But I believe children are resilient." She hoped that was true, since her own child would grow up with a father who was distant, at best.
"Often more resilient than their parents," he said.
"What is your ex-wife doing in Paris?" she asked.
"Her new husband is from there. Candace is an artist. He's an actor." He shook his head. "Not the most settled environment for my daughter, but that's a whole other story."
A story Diana would have liked hearing, but she didn't want to press. She was enjoying their conversation too much to risk pushing him away. Whether it was fatigue or hormones or something mysterious in the cabin air, she felt a connection to this man she hadn't felt with anyone in, well, years.
"I won't bore you with all the details," he said. "I don't want to be one of those bitter ex-husbands who goes on and on to anyone who will listen about how he got the raw end of the deal. Tell me about your trip to New York. I haven't had the chance to spend much time in the city lately."
For the next hour, they talkedabout New York, shopping, theater, books and movies. The conversation flowed easily from one subject to the next with the ease and intensity of old acquaintances catching upor new friends eager to know everything about each other. Diana's fatigue vanished, replaced by the heady euphoria of attraction.
Even when they had to break off their conversation to accept the meager bags of pretzels and lukewarm cola that passed for refreshments, she was too aware of the man in the aisle seat. He'd spoken with such concern for his daughterconcern her child's father was apparently incapable of feeling.
Diana glanced at him again. Upon close inspection, she noted a hint of silver at his temples, and fine lines around his eyes that deepened when he smiled. At this hour of the afternoon his jaw showed the beginnings of a five-o'clock shadow, though he was otherwise impeccably groomed, from his neatly pressed shirt and pants to his fashionably cut hair and manicured nails.
He was definitely the kind of man who would catch any woman's eyeeven one newly divorced and seven months pregnant. Add liking children enough to manage a school full of them, and being obviously devoted to his daughter to his list of qualities, and Jason Benton was definitely the kind of man she'd choose to star in her best fantasies.
Out of the corner of his eye, Jason studied the woman in the window seat. Her light brown hair was drawn back from her face in a smooth chignon. Her skin was pale beneath a light dusting of makeuphe thought he could make out a few freckles. Her maternity top was made out of some expensive, silky material and her jewelry was chunky and ethnic looking.
The kind of thing Candace would have liked.
This reminder of his ex-wife darkened his mood. She'd received him coolly when he arrived at her Paris flat to pick up Kinsey. She'd greeted him at the door, barefoot and dressed in a Grecian-style gown, her auburn hair in wild disarray. She'd had a paintbrush stuck behind one ear and a streak of cadmium yellow across one cheek. "I'm in the middle of a commission and don't have time to talk," she'd said before he could utter one word.
He would have told her he had nothing to say to her, but Kinsey was standing there, her pink suitcase in her hand, her perfect heart-shaped face alight with anticipation. So he'd turned his attention to her, ignoring both Candace and her new husband, Victor.
"Do you know what Candace's new husband said when I arrived to pick up my daughter?" he asked Diana when the flight attendant had moved on.
"What?" she asked. Her expression was attentive interested. He welcomed the opportunity to sort out his muddled feelings by talking to her.
"He spoke French, and I'm not very fluent, but I'm sure he said something about the fact that I wore a suit to pick up Kinsey."
Her brow furrowed. "What's wrong with that?"
"Exactly what I was wondering. When Kinsey and I were alone in the taxi, I asked her if she thought my wearing a suit was odd. ‘No,' she said. ‘You always wear suits.' Then she said, ‘Victor never wears a suit.'"
"Victor is your ex-wife's new husband?"
"Right. I couldn't decide if Kinsey thought the difference in the way we dressed was a good thing or a bad thing." What if she liked Victor's style betterthought he was friendlier, cooler? While her dad was just a stuffed shirt?
"I would think a child would see it as a good thing that the two of you are different," Diana said. "Victor has one role in her life, while you have another. Clearly different, with little ambiguity." She nodded. "Children like that, I think."
"Maybe so. Her mother and I are certainly different enough." His relationship with Candace had always been of the oil-and-water variety. She was artistic, impulsive, messy and irresponsible. He was neat, ordered and methodical. He'd seen them as a case of opposites attracting, each of them filling in the blank spaces of the other.
"I used to think the difference between us would make our marriage stronger," he said. "I told myself our problems were just the ordinary rough spots any marriage had to weather. Now I see how naive I was."
"I know exactly what you mean," Diana said. "I thought Richard and I were happy, too. Only after we'd separated did I realize I'd mistaken complacency for contentment."
Was that what he'd beencomplacent? "Most of the time Candace and I were happy," he said. "Or at least I was. And Kinsey was, too." He smiled, remembering the first time he'd held his daughter. "She was the most beautiful baby. I fell in love with her the first moment her blue eyes looked into mine."
"She's a very lucky little girl," Diana said, her voice wistful. "Richard was never close to his children. I told myself it was because he's very reserved. Now I think it's more that he's too selfish to want to put forth the effort to build relationships with others."
Jason felt a stab of sympathy for the man. Keeping a little distance between oneself and others would probably prevent a lot of pain. All the happiness he'd known had crumbled like a sugar castle the afternoon Candace told him she was leaving, and taking Kinsey with her. He'd struggled through the divorce and the contentious custody arrangements, too shell-shocked to protest when their lawyers and the judge decided that seeing his daughter every other weekend was enough.
It clearly wasn't enough, but Candace had been good about allowing him ample access to Kinsey. All he'd ever wanted was to care for and protect his family. The failure haunted him, but he did his best to adjust. Then Candace had announced she was not only remarrying, but her new husband was a Frenchman, a native of Paris. They would be relocating to a flat on the Left Bank, and taking Kinsey with them.
He'd tried to fight her decision, but couldn't even get a court date before she was gone.
He glanced at Diana once more, at the gentle swelling of her abdomen beneath her tunic. How could a man divorce a woman who carried his unborn child?