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Trent Walker. On her plane. Shoot me now.
Dakota Merrick sank a little deeper into the plush upholstery of her seat and watched as Walker sauntered up the aisle of the first class cabin. He held a leather laptop case in one hand, and a long, camel-colored coat was slung over his arm. He was casually dressed in a deep green polo and dark jeans and oh, yes, they both fit him quite nicely. The rich fabric clinging to him allowed her to make out the imprint of toned pecs and biceps.
Not that she was admiring them or anything.
As he drew closer, Dakota became aware of an itch rising somewhere in her midsection and creeping upward, like an invasion of teeny baby spiders. Up, up, over her chest and throat, up into her hair, and oh, ugh. Spider metaphors were so uncool. She was a better writer than that.
He was even closer now. Damn.
It was a six-hour flight from the small eastern seaboard city of Santa Amata. If she'd been granted three wishes by a genie, she was pretty sure that being trapped for so long in a flying potato-chip can with the great Trent Walker wouldn't be one of them.
Especially since the last time they'd met, she'd almost got herself arrested.
He was not going to sit next to her. He was not She'd rather sit next to a toddler with an ear infection. Anything would be better than being stuck with
She was relieved to see that he was stopping two rows ahead. Dakota watched as he checked his ticket, his long face tilted down, his eyes hidden behind thin, expensive sunglasses. Then he lifted his head, verified his seat number and seemed satisfied.
Easily, he popped open the storage bin and stowed his haphazardly folded coat inside. He held on to the laptop. Sure he would, she thought. The music genius was probably going to work through the whole flight.
She looked down at the pile of magazines she'd brought with her, and tried not to feel competitive. There'd be more than enough work to keep her occupied once she got to Tobago, she reminded herself. She didn't need to get all workaholic up in here.
A chubby-legged young girl in a too-short denim skirtwhich looked more like a wide, clingy belt than anything elsesqueezed past Walker, looked up into his face with a pardon-me smile, and stopped dead. Dakota could hear the squeal of recognition from where she sat.
Trying not to roll her eyes, she watched the two briefly exchange words. Walker was smiling nonchalantly, while the girl quivered like an overexcited rabbit and flipped her purple-streaked hair. He reached into his laptop pocket, pulled out a small card, wrote something on it and extended it to her between two fingers. She clasped it to her chest like it was Willy Wonka's golden ticket, then did a little happy dance, chubby ankles tripping past each other in lace-up platform shoes.
Now Dakota really did roll her eyes.
Traffic in the aisle was backing up, so Walker excused himself with an incline of his head, and slid into his row. He smiled goodbye to the bunny rabbit and she jiggled down the aisle. She stopped, as luck would have it, right next to Dakota. Dakota rose and slid out, allowing her access to the window seat, glancing in Walker's direction as she did so.
She was startled to discover that he was looking in hers.
His expression could have won him a prize at a lemon-sucking contest. Slowly, one long hand came up and removed the glasses, as if he needed more light to determine if it really was her. With that gesture, he revealed eyes that reminded her of the buttered toffee she used to make candy apples with as a kid. But in those eyes. There was no warmth there. The unsmiling set of his full mouth immediately squelched that happy memory.
Okay, so Walker was as thrilled to see her as she was to see him.
His momma must have raised him right, though, because he acknowledged her with a politeif stiffdip of the head. She responded with a dip of her own, and then hastened to get back into her seat. By the time she finished fussing with her seat belt, he was sitting in the aisle seat, and all she could see was his hand and the back of his head as he popped in his ear-buds. Seemed the man liked to listen to music while he worked. Not surprising, considering his whole life revolved around it.
"Do you know who that is?" the bunny squealed in her ear as she clicked her seat belt shut.
"I've got a pretty good idea," she answered dryly.
"That's Trent Walker. You know, like, Outlandish Music, Trent Walker? The owner?"
Dakota looked past her seatmate onto the tarmac. April rain slashed at the windows. She hoped it wouldn't delay their departure. Maybe if the engines started up, it would drown out the starstruck yipping. But if Walker's momma had raised him well, hers had raised her better, so she smiled and said, "Sure is. Not a face you can miss."
"Tell me about it! He's off da hook, ain't he? And I'm not just talking 'bout his face. He's hotter than half the acts he produces. And we're on the same plane. Can you believe it?" As the muted vibrations began humming through the cabin, her seatmate lifted her voice to be heard over the din. "And he's going to the Tobago Jazz Festival, just like me. You going?"
Dakota nodded. She was pretty sure everyone on the plane was headed to Jazz. It was one of the most popular annual music events in the Caribbean, and music lovers from all over the world were streaming in for it. Although Tobago was a mere speck of an island, home to only sixty thousand people, music legends like Whitney Houston, Elton John, Smokey Robinson and James Ingram had set the festival stages on fire in years gone by.
The girl waved the piece of paper she was clutching. "He just wrote me a backstage pass. I can go back after any show and talk to the stars. Big stars, girl. Giants!" She clasped her hands in elaborate prayer and looked heavenward. "Oh, please, let Erykha be there! That would be sooo You want a backstage pass? You should get one." The girl prodded Dakota in the ribs. "Go 'head. Ask him. Fast, before we get airborne. Go on!"
The thought of her begging a favor off Trent Walker made her grin, but she explained gently, "Thanks, but I already have a pass. All access," she couldn't resist adding, and reprimanded herself for being childish.
"Really? What're you, like ." Large black eyes gave Dakota the once-over. " a backup singer or something?"
Dakota wondered if she should be offended that the youngster hadn't pegged her for a main act. She shook her head. "Nope. Can't sing a note. It's a press pass. I'm a writer. A music columnist."
"Oh." The interest faded, what with Dakota not being a famous entertainer or anything. "Well, Trent Walker's got like, three acts performing at Jazz. Mango Mojothe boy band, you know, with the sideburns guy? And Ryan Balthazar, and Shanique. She's out of rehab, did you hear? First time back on stage." She fluffed her purple-striped hair airily. "And I'm gonna get to meet them."
You 'll meet them sooner than I will, Dakota thought, since Walker had shot down any hope of her ever interviewing his acts. The name Shanique tripped her up like a pothole on an otherwise smooth road. Yeah, she'd heard a little something about Shanique being out of rehab. Guiltily, her glance flew in Walker's directionand found he was looking back, over his seat, his steady eyes reflecting nothing.
Her seatmate clapped her hand over her mouth. "OMG! He's looking at me!" She grabbed one of Dakota's magazines and hastily opened it, pretending to read. "Is he still staring?"
Yeah, Dakota thought. But not at you. Walker shifted forward again, just as the plane lifted its nose and rose into the sky.
"It's safe," she informed Walker's newfound groupie. "He's turned back around."
The girl clamped the magazine to her chest with a sigh. "Oh, man. Just think, a whole week in the hot Caribbean sun, rum parties all day, jazz all night, with dudes that look like him roaming around." The youthful face turned mischievous. "A week's a long time, and I'm sure he's gonna be hanging out backstage." She twirled the square of cardboard Walker had signed. "And something as fine-looking as that, you just gotta have a taste, ya know?" She flicked her tongue past her purple-painted lips, and Dakota tried not to be shocked, either by the suggestion or by the diamond that glinted at the tip of her tongue.
"How old are you?" she blurted.
"Old enough," the girl said, and laughed.
The first thing to hit Dakota was the scent of the island. Even as she stood just outside Crown Point International, with passengers bustling by and taxis honking, a sweet perfume asserted itself. It was a smell that made her think of melting brown sugar, suntan oil, fishing nets and pounding waves. She craned her head in the direction of a row of coconut trees, trying to catch a glimpse of the softly undulating water beyond. She felt like dropping her suitcase and handbag, kicking off her shoes, and running toward that wonderful surging surf.
Fortunately, good sense prevailed. This was not a vacation. She wasn't here to work on her tan or to snorkel. She was here to cover the jazz festival for her widely syndicated magazine entertainment column. That meant checking in at her hotel, getting some shut-eye and heading out to the main venue in the morning to start trawling for stories.
She held on tightly to the handle of her luggage, feeling a little ridiculous and overdressed in her close-fitting black leather skirt and knit top. They had kept her warm and dry on the other end of the trip, as foul weather prevailed on the East Coast. But here, in Tobago, even after six in the evening, cotton shorts and sandals would have been far more appropriate.
She turned her head, looking for her shuttle. Her assistant had booked her a suite in a hotel called the Sea Urchin, and they in turn had promised to send a ride for her when she landed. But she'd been waiting twenty minutes, and there was no sign of a vehicle with a blue-and-silver logo.
As she waited, Dakota idly took in her surroundings. The airport was tiny, a long building with a driveway running right through it, arrival and departure facilities on one side, and a series of small shops and booths on the other. Shop windows were jam-packed with tanning oils, brightly printed T-shirts, bikinis and sundresses. Women at vendors' tables, wearing bright floral aprons, yelled at passersby to sample their homemade peppermint sticks and coconut candies.
She fished out the notebook she'd jotted down the hotel's particulars in and consulted it, then squinted at the signs and buildings nearby. She was in the correct spot, all right. There were other hotel cars around, and a press of taxi drivers in neat white shirts and black trousers, all clamoring for attention. Every now and then one would approach her, dark face split with a grin, and flash an ID badge. "Taxi?" She shook her head, and kept waiting.
Sea Urchin, Sea Urchin! Where are you?
Something rolled through her, tingly enough to be uncomfortable. She recognized it at once: a danger signal. She spun around, bringing her hand unconsciously to the back of her neck to smooth down the fine hairs that were at full attention. Trent Walker was strolling in her direction with that fine, easy walk of his, hips loose, long legs scissoring past each other. She had to consciously restart her heart.
They'd met five or six times, mainly at industry events. The last time she'd spoken with him, they'd been at a big album launch in Manhattan, he as a guest, she as a member of the media. It could have been seven months, easily, although the details of their encounter had the immediacy of a recent memory. His star artiste, the dark and glorious Shanique, had still been in rehab, recovering from a drug and alcohol habit, when she should have been on a Mediterranean tour that would have put millions into her pocketand Walker's. And as for him, while his name wasn't exactly mud in an industry that had seen far worse sins than the one he'd committed, he wasn't exactly untouched by the scandal that ensued when Dakota's story hit the papers.
Walker acted like it was all Dakota's fault. But Dakota had simply broken the story of Shanique's drug abuseand the lengths Walker had gone to cover it up. She'd been lucky, and had a connection who led her to the right source. She'd caught it and run with it. The story had doubled the number of papers in which her column appeared. Who could blame her? Walker could, that's who.
He'd had a few choice words for her that night, and said things he shouldn't have about her character. She'd responded in a way that would have been funny in a cartoon, but wasn't appropriate in the middle of a cocktail party with the movers and shakers of the music worldnot to mention the presslooking on.
She'd been a naughty girl.