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Darla James stood in the winding security line at JFK airport trying not to think about the moment the plane would take off with her inside it. That moment when the massive steel cage, otherwise known as "the plane," would lift into the air with nothing she perceived as logical to keep it from falling to the ground. She pressed her hand to her throat, mentally reprimanding herself. She had to get past this fear of flying if she was going to travel to the various audition cities. Darla had been hired as the new judge on season two of the smash hit Stepping Up. The studio was even allowing her to film her morning show on the road, despite it being on a competing network. She wasn't about to blow this opportunity over some dumb fear of flying. She would pass through the security gates. She would not turn away and run back to her car. This was too big an opportunity for her to mess up, even more so for her parents' struggling ranch and animal shelter.
Darla blew a wayward strand of long blond hair from her face and noted the televisions hanging from the ceiling. A perky cooking channel goddess was muted, but it was clear that she was describing how to make a strawberry cake. Darla welcomed the distraction the show offered, telling herself that she might recreate that perfect masterpiece in her own kitchen. Although she was better known for burning a grilled cheese sandwich or two.
By the time Darla made it past the metal detectors, she was eager to double-check her stock of necessities for the flight. She should have a package of Hershey's kisses, her favorite romance author's latest book and her headphones. Anything not easily spotted per a quick inspection would be purchased at the gift shop. Those items represented her best hope that she wouldn't embarrass herself on the plane. Anything to avoid wayward yelps during takeoff or panicked questions about the sounds the plane might make. She'd been there, done that, and received the dirty looks of those who were not afraid to fly. She hated those looks.
The plastic bin containing her things slid to a halt in front of her and with her plan in place and fifteen minutes to spare before boarding, Darla whirled toward departures. That was when she was hit with her first wave of turbulence. Coming face-to-face with Blake Nelsonher show nemesisor rather, face-to-chest with him, considering the man was a good foot taller than her measly five foot two inches, was bad news. She swallowed hard, not having to look beyond the navy T-shirt stretching across an impressive chest to be convinced of Blake's good looks. She already got his appeal thanks to another up-close-and-personal occasion she wished she could forget.
Darla tore her gaze from his impressive set of pecs. She wondered what her weakness for a man who had been downright mean to her a few months before said about her. Sadly, she concluded that her producer, Kaylatwo years her senior at twenty-nine and happily married to a gorgeous veterinarianwas right. Darla must really have a secret, self-defeating mechanism when it came to relationships. She was attracted to all the wrong men.
Blake's brilliant blue gaze captured hers and twinkled in a moment of mischief before he glanced down at her socked feet peeking beneath her blue jeans. He arched a dark brow. "I always seem to catch you with your shoes off."
She grimaced at the reference to their "incident" as she thought of it, in which they'd been working a red carpet event, side by side, when her heel had broken off her shoe. She'd proceeded to stumble happily against that hard body of his. He'd reciprocated by catching her and flirting outrageously. Unfortunately, his camera crew had captured the entire embarrassing event on film.
"I'd have thought you'd gotten the shoe jokes out of your system when you made fun of me on your show the next morning," she muttered, and then marched toward the line of chairs just past security and sat down.
He followed, stopping in front of heror rather, towering over her. She refused to look up at him and instead, infuriatingly, noticed his powerful thighs flex beneath his jeans. Not that his musclesor that sexy cleft in his chin mattered. He was not the man for her.
"My guest made fun of you," he said, as if that gave him some form of defense. "Not me."
Her gaze jerked to his, anger brought her back to her senses. "You played the footage of our exchange on your show. Your guestRickwas the host of Stepping Up not The Blake Nelson Show. He didn't have the power to make that happen."
"Rick plotted with my producer who was fishing for ratings. I told him off and my producer. And I called you to apologize."
She laced one of her boots, seeing no reason to deny that he'd called. "I didn't want to talk to you any more than I want to work with Rick. But we don't always get what we want."
Surprise registered on his chiseled, too-handsome, arrogant face. "Are you always so honest?"
She stood up. "With appropriate discretionwhich means not at the risk of hurting someone. What you and Rick did to me could have hurt my career and my livelihood. You made me look like I wasn't focused on my job, like I was playing games on the red carpet. And, no, it didn't get me fired, but had my ratings dipped, it would have been brought up again, and you know it." It certainly had made her doubt her desire to be in the public eye. She threw the strap of her bag over her shoulder. "And for the record, I didn't take your call because I was afraid our conversation would later become a part of your show. I have to run to catch my flight." She started walking.
He fell into step beside her a bit too easily, as if he'd anticipated the move. She glared up at him, quickly turning away before those blue eyes captured hers, sending a flutter to her stomach. "Why are you following me?"
He ignored the question. "If it's any consolation, not only did that show's content not hurt your career, your fansand mine, for that matterwere furious with me. I got hate mail and the phones rang off the hook for weeks after. My viewers thought the incident was just as inappropriate as you did."
She knew that because she'd gotten her share of mail, as well. And that mail had been what had kept her from quitting. Thatand her family who, as always, loved and supported her. "What you did was inappropriate." She cut him a look. "But I assume your ratings softened the blow of the outcry." They'd been hugeoff the charts.
He threw up his hands. "I didn't have anything to do with what happened. I swear to you, Darla. I would never have done something so callous. If you replay the footage of my show you'll see the shock on my face. And you'll see I tried to salvage the situation while I was on air."
Dang. He sounded sincere. So sincere that Don't do it, she silently warned herself. Don't fall victim to the wrong guy saying the right things. She wanted to do it, too, she wanted to believe him, to stop and tell him that it was okay, that it was old history, because that is what she did. She made people feel better, she forgave them. She lay down and let them walk all over her.
Knowing how close she was to making a huge mistake with this man, Darla all but shouted with joy at the sight of a ladies' room. She had her escape from Mr. Wrong.
Darla stopped abruptly. "Excuse me, but I have to run in here."
"Wait, Darla. There's something"
"Sorry," she said, knowing if he talked one minute more or kept looking at her with those damnable gorgeous eyes, she'd start caving in again. She motioned behind her. "No men allowed." Cringing at the silly statementlike he didn't know no men were allowed?she rushed down the narrow, tiled hallway.
The instant Darla was out of Blake's sight, she slumped against the wall, unaware that she'd been holding her breath. He was just one heck of a lot of man. And there was no question that it would be easy for her to forget why she had to be on guard around him, forget he was her enemy.
She pushed off the wall and plopped her bag down on the corner of a long counter running beneath a mirror. She'd vowed to lay off the Easter chocolate, which always meant an extra five pounds, and the wrong men, which usually amounted to an extra seven. The camera was pretty darn unforgiving, which helped strengthen her otherwise weak promise. There was no Blake Nelson anywhere in her future but as a competitor for ratings.
There was, however, something to look forward to.
Though her show wasn't a money-maker, not yet, she still sent every dime she could home. Stepping Up could solve all her problems by giving her enough to pay off her parents' debt and get them ahead. If Darla made it through the first four episodes. That's when the reality show's executives either had to call her a one-season wonder or take up the option, guaranteeing her one more season with a big fat bonus. Even if they didn't option her, she hoped she'd have enough of a ratings boost on her morning show to increase her pay there.
Darla shoved Blake and worries over the future out of her mind and focused on the urgent matter at hand. She did an inventory of her bag for the flight to Denver, the first audition city. Chocolatecheck. Bookcheck. Oh, no. Where were her headphones? She had to have her headphones so she wouldn't hear the sounds the plane made. A frantic search proved they weren't there and she cringed when she remembered reminding herself to grab them off the kitchen table.
She snatched up her bag and headed for the exit, intending to search out the gift shop, not even thinking about Blake. That was until she was out the door and felt a rush of disappointment that he was gone. Clearly, she was so not over her Mr. Wrong guy syndrome. Nor, she realized five minutes later, was she going to have a headset for the flight. Darla charged down the walkway, and just that one chink in her travel armor had her fear soaring. What if they crashed? What if the engine stopped working? What about birds?
She halted at the gangway to the plane and handed the stewardess her boarding pass. The woman scanned it and smiled. "Welcome, Ms. James. You'll be in a window seat on the fourth row and I'll be by to check on you momentarily."
"Thank you," she said, and wondered if the reality show had put her in first class because it was safer. That had to be it. Why else would they spend such a ridiculous amount of money on a seat not so unlike the others a few rows behind? She inhaled, and fought the urge to ask the stewardess the millions of questions rushing through her mindlike how experienced the pilot was and how much rest he'd had.
Forcefully, she sent a command to her legs to move, to walk through the entry and down the aisle. And that's when the second wave of turbulence hit her, because Blake Nelson was sitting in the seat next to hers.
"I tried to warn you," Blake said, doing his best not to smile at the adorably distressed expression on Darla James's face. He could see why the Colorado country girl gone big city had charmed her audience into a top ratings slot. He was as taken with her as her viewers were, something no woman had done to him in a very long time, he realized.
"Warn me?" she asked, blinking in confusion and shoving a lock of blond hair from her eyes to see him more clearly.
"Right," he said, unable to keep himself from teasing her. "When you tucked tail and ran into the bathroom." And it became abundantly clear that she didn't know he was taking the trip with her.
"I did not tuck " Understanding slid across her lovely heart-shaped face. "You were going to warn me that we were traveling together?" He gave a slow nod and her pale green eyes glinted with yellow flecks, then narrowed on him suspiciously as she, no doubt, began to put two and two together. "How would you have known we were on the same flight, next to each other, unless "
The same person made our reservations, he finished silently for her. Noting the flight attendant approaching her from behind, he suggested, "I think you need to sit down." He stood up to let her by and reached for her bag. "Do you want me to put that overhead?"
"I'll keep it and I don't need to sit. I need you to tell me what is going on."
"Hello, Ms. James," the flight attendant said, drawing her attention. "Is there a problem? I need to clear the aisle for boarding. I can help you with your bag if you need help?"
"I No. No problem." She turned a perplexed look on Blake, her ivory cheeks now flushed a pretty pink. "I guess I need to sit down."
His lips twitched and he motioned her forward. "Probably a good idea."
She scooted into the seat by the window and Blake quickly took his seat, the soft scent of her floral perfume hung in the airsweet like the woman. He was really ready for sweet, and someone with her own career, her own dreams, instead of the women who chased his success or his money.
She whirled on him, her tartness doing nothing to sour her sweetness. "What's going on?"
"I work for the same network as Stepping Up" he said, stating the obvious. "I'm filming a special segment on the first audition stop."
She inhaled and exhaled, her fingers curling around her bag, which she clutched in her lap. "I'd have thought someone would have warned me."
"Well," he said. "I did the same thing last year. They probably assumed you knew that since we have competing morning shows. I guess I should warn you that I'll be back the first week the finalists move into the contestant house to film the reality portion of the show. Then again when the winner is announced and gets the studio contract and the two hundred and fifty thousand dollar prize. And, for the record, I doubt the studio thought you'd react quite so shall we say intensely to my presence, since you're the one with the new cable contract."
"I was surprised, not intense," she countered. "Whatever intense is supposed to mean."
He glanced down at her bag. "You're holding on to that bag like you either plan to hit me with it or make a run for the door."