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Ashley Larsen climbed over the family of three, mumbling "excuse me," but honestly, in the wide-bodied jet, there was no elegant way to get to her seat with her dignity intactespecially since darling little Junior kept poking her in the rear and laughing maniacally. All the while Mom tried to pretend that nothing was amiss.
With a tight smile plastered on her face, Ashley climbed over the skanky-handed hellion, and then plopped into her seat with a relieved sigh. She hated the five seats in the center aisle. What designer thought that was a good idea? Especially on a day like today, when the direct route to her seat was blocked by the sweet little old lady who wanted to stuff the three-foot antique lamp into the overhead compartment. Patiently, the flight attendant was explaining how honestly, truly, cross her heart, the baggage handlers would treat the fragile piece with care. Stubbornly, the little old lady wasn't buying it for a minute, and Ashley wished her all the luck in the world. Thank God that was over; now on to the real death-defying feat preparing for takeoff. After a slow count to three hundred twiceshe pulled the plastic bag from her carry-on and then pushed the suitcase back under the seat in front of her. Furiously she kicked off her travel shoes with some previously unleashed aggression, and then donned fluffy pink bunny slippers. If she was going to die in the air, she wanted to be with at least one thing close to her heart.
Ashley hated flying. Her sister Valerie called it her Erica Jong moment, but it wasn't sex that Ashley was afraid of, only moving through the skies at supersonic speeds, a gazillionfeet off the ground. Physics had never been her best subject, and besides, she knew there was something seriously wrong with the concept. However, she hated the idea of being a slave to her fears, so, as a survival mechanism she had created her flying ritual. Every month, when she took off from O'Hare airport on her latest buying trip, she meticulously followed the same pattern to maintain sanity. Whatever worked.
Soon everyone was seated, the antique lamp was stored below and the flight attendant droned the standard disclaimers about pulling away from the gate in ten minutes. Just as Ashley had properly prepared herself for takeoff, another passenger made his way down the aisle, claiming the one remaining empty seat in the airplane. The one between Ashley and Mr. and Mrs. American Family, who were futilely trying to keep Junior amused. Now they decided to resume their parental responsibility. Couldn't they have done it earlier, when he was playing pin-the-sippy-cup on Ashley's butt? No.
Pointedly, Ashley stared out the window because she wasn't normally a rude person, but air travel brought out one hundred and one demons in her, none of them Emily Post-like. Valerie said that the buying trips were good for her. That the only way to conquer a fear was to tackle it head-on. Valerie could be a total pain, and one day Ashley was going to stop listening to her sister's advice. But not today. Today she needed the ritual.
A hard thigh brushed against hers, and she jumped.
"Sorry." The voice was deep, husky and appropriately apologetic. Okay, there was another reasonable, sane human being on this flight. Ashley turned and the polite smile froze.
Hello, hot man.
His trousers were an off-the-shelf-khaki, his shirt, a nicely mussed crisp white, which, on most men would scream copier repairman, but here it was like newsprint veiling a diamond.
Yes, sometimes clothes made the man, but sometimes, the man made the clothes.
After logging thousands of air miles, she'd traveled next to perfumed matrons decked in crystal-encrusted fleece, overly large seat huggers, squeegee businessmen who thought she looked lonely and, yes, a veritable cornucopia of families from hell, but never, never, had she actually sat next to a man with a nice smile, wonderfully wicked hazel eyes and a lovely, lovely body that begged to be unwrapped.
"Not a problem," she said, and then promptly looked away.
Come on, Ashley. Flirt a little. Pep up your game. Give him the goofy smile. Guys like that.
It was Valerie's voice. The first time in three years that Ashley had felt heat between her legs and she was listening to an imaginary lecture from her younger sister. Not anymore, no way, no how.
"I didn't think I was going to make it," said hot man, continuing to converse with her.
Ashley was torn between wanting to converse with hot man and sinking farther down into her seat and hiding her bunny slippers, but alas, it was impossible in the sardine-like conditions. "And you made it," she said, giving him the goofy smile until she realized what she was doing and promptly stopped.
"After running the four-forty through Terminal two. The next flight to L.A. isn't until tomorrow at six, and I just want to get this over with. You ever feel like that?"
He smiled, then immediately frowned, the wicked hazel eyes glancing politely to the aisle.
Married. Must be. Or attached.
SubtlyunconsciouslyAshley's eyes drifted, which she hated, to his left hand. She wasn't on the make, she wasn't interested, she didn't need a man. She wasn't even thinking about being on the make, no matter how much Valerie nagged her.
But that didn't explain the little heart-thud when she noticed there was no ring.
You're a wimp, Ashley.
As she contemplated her own human needfulness, the stewardess pulled out the life vest to demonstrate the life-saving effects of the floatation device. Ashley imagined the floatation device bobbling alone in the ocean, her hands aching with cold from the water of the Great Lakes, her face dimming to a pale blue, her lungs weakening ever so slightly. Her hand locked onto the armrest because she knew that Lake Michigan had an ambient temperature of fifty-nine degrees Fahrenheit in April, which didn't sound too bad, but she'd seen that damn Titanic movie. She didn't want to live it.
"First flight?" asked hot man, the nice smile returning, which did have the unexpected effect of calming her fears somewhat.
"No, sadly, I became a platinum passenger last year. I'm merely a coward at heart."
"I'm sorry," he said, the hazel eyes flickering more toward greena warm, earthy green that did more to distract her than a muscle relaxant ever could, and reminded her that she hadn't had sex in a long time.
"Don't be. It's a family trait. Yellow-bellied, lily-livered Larsens, that's us."
He smiled again, and she felt the tell-tale heart-thud again. She unlocked her gaze from the captivating green of his eyes, and drifted to where Junior was most likely planning his latest nihilistic techniques.
Ask his name.
It's only a name, a polite introduction. Not an invitation to the mile-high club.
I don't care. Shut up, Valerie.
I'm not even here.
I know. I swear when I get back on land, I'm going to see a therapist. It's the only answer.
Don't be a wimp, Ashley.
I'm very self-aware. I'm a wimp.
Why do I even try?
Because you're sadistic, and you revel in my pain. It makes you feel superior.
I'm not even here.
"Don't talk to me," muttered Ashley, wondering if hearing her sister's nagging meant that she was a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The wind was certainly blowing in that direction.
"I'm sorry?" asked hot-guy.
"Oh, not you. I hear voices."
His brows rosecharmingly, of course. He really had a great smile. It wasn't a full-bodied smile, just a quick rise on the right side of his mouth where his mouth smashed headlong into a tiny dimple. "Part of the phobia?"
"No, my psychotic sister. Do you have a psychotic sister?" she asked, firmly believing that everyone should have a psychotic sister.
"You are so lucky. I always thought a brother would be cool. As long as he doesn't nag."
"Your sister nags?"
Ashley nodded. "Like a mother."
"I'm sorry," he said, apologizing again, and she noted how rare it was to hear a man apologize. Jacob had never apologized. Not once.
Right at that precise moment, Junior stabbed hot man in the hand with a particularly lethal twisty straw, and he yelped, his hand diving toward the armrest, trapping hers in a death grip of pain.
Ashley yelped, too, Junior laughed hysterically and Mom politely looked in the opposite direction, as if all were right with her world. Muscle relaxants could do that to a person.
Hot man's hand lifted from hers, and Ashley's normal blood flow resumed. He looked at her, the hazel eyes no longer
wickednow they showed true fear. About time he appreciated the seriousness of their situation. Four hours next to the toddling terror of the skies, who was now demanding macaroni and cheese, obviously oblivious to the plebian limitations of airplane food.
"He just broke out from the pen," Ashley whispered confidentially. "Wanted in four states. I saw his mug on the post office wall."
Hot man leaned in close and she could feel the whisper of his breath.
Ah, yearning loins, aching to be filled. Thy name is lust.
Shut up, Valerie.
"Stabbed you, too?" he asked.
"Nope. Butt-fondling in the third degree."
"Really?" He grinned. "A mastermind of crime with discriminating taste."
He's flirting with you, Ashley. That's definitely flirting.
Shut up, Valerie.
"So, why're you going to L.A.?" asked Ashley, flirting in return. "Vacation. Business. The fresh air?"
"Business," he answered, kicking his feet toward the computer case in front of him. "I'm a business analyst. You?"
"Buying trip. Clothes."
His eyes raked over her, noting the bunny slippers, and she felt the twinge again. The loins were definitely starting to yearn. "You like to shop that much?"
"I own some boutiques," she spoke, the words stumbling out of her mouth like pebbles. She'd bought the stores as a post-divorce present to herself, but what had been an impulsive plan to reinvent her life, hadn't quite blossomed as she'd hoped. As a kid, she loved to shop for clothes, loved to put together outfits that seemingly didn't belong, but then somehow worked. Unfortunately owning four disjointed clothing boutiques required more than stylish élan. Ashley's business sense hadn't magically appeared as Valerie had believed, and a good eye for color
and style couldn't compete with designing ads and balancing the budget. In fact, in the past few months, usually when she was paying the bills, she thought about selling the stores, worried that she couldn't cut it. It was when the rent got raised for the second time in as many years that she worried she was like some people on those television reality shows. Thinking they could sing, but when their mouths opened the world's worst sounds emerged, and the home audience is sitting there wondering why the heck these types ever, ever had the wonky idea that they belonged in the limelight.
There were certain similarities.
Ashley's smile fell, the plane moved slowly back from the gate and she felt the familiar lurch in her stomach.
"I'll be fine," replied Ashley, and she would. Business problems, personal problems, fashion problems, in the big scheme of things, they didn't amount to much that couldn't be overcome. In the end, Ashley was a survivor. When she was working on a new store windowsurrounded by encouraging mannequins draped in subtly fitted, beautifully crafted, casual couturethe dream returned. She could do it. All she needed was to keep the faith.
She gave hot man a weak smile, and he covered her hand, a grip that was supposed to be comforting.
If you'd only twitch the thumb, a tiny caress .
Shut up, Valerie.
He had large hands, warm hands, with long, long fingers that looked so full of possibilities.
"Everything all right?"
"Peachy." The engines start to roar.
Quickly she took out the air-sickness bag.
Just in case.
David McLean hadn't been excited about a side-trip through Chicago to see his brother. Ex-brother. Chris had lost any claim to family bonding after he'd slept with David's wife. Yeah, nothing like a little wife-sharing between brothers. Four years, and it still pissed him off.
Still, in the face of pink bunny slippers and shoved in close quarters with a young psycho in training, David felt something unfamiliar tug at his face. A grin. Yes, that was definitely a grin.
The woman was just nervous enough to be unthreatening. He liked her. Her hair was dark, nearly black, and she had soft brown eyes and a nose that was too big to be called pert. But it gave her a little something extracharacter. And she had a nice mouth, plump lips that were always held slightly parted, like a kid viewing the world for the first time, or a woman in the beginning throes of climax.
There was something stirring in his khakistrouble. Sex held the whip hand, and turned men into stupid dogs. Like, for instance, Chris. And Christine. When he first introduced his future wife to his brother, all three of them had laughed about their matching names. The day he had found them in bed together, the laughter had stopped.
He shot a furtive look at the bunny slippers.
"I'm David," he said, carefully displacing thoughts of Chris and Christine.
"Are you from Chicago?"
"Born, bred and will most likely die here as well."
"Cubbies fan, aren't you?" It was there in her eyes, that sort of lost hope, winning seasons long denied. Idealistic dreamersa rarely seen species that was going to naturally select itself into extinction.
She winced. "I know, it's pathetic, isn't it? Are you from Chicago?"
"Ah, home of the Yankees."
"What can I say? I live in New York. We always back the money team."
"Sad to be bought so easily."
He shrugged, and looked out the window. The plane had stopped moving toward the runway. They were returning to the gate.
Immediately Ashley noticed. "Something's wrong, isn't it?" Her finger jammed at the call button, just as the captain came on the speaker, his voice Prozac calm and soothing, which only made her more nervous.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we've had a slight mechanical issue. Nothing to worry about. I'm going to pull us back to the gate and have the mechanics check things out. We'll have a short stop where you can disembark, if you choose. However, you will need your boarding pass to reboard."
"We're not flying?" she said, and he noticed the relief in her voice.
"We're going to fly," answered David, wanting to reassure her, but more importantly, he needed to get to L.A. The sooner he left Chicago the better.
"I'm not taking off my slippers," she answered. "They can't do that to me."
"It's okay, I'm sure it won't be long," he told her, not his usual brutal honestly, but he suspected there was normally more color in her face, and if bunny slippers made her happy, who was he to take them away?
"What sort of mechanical problems do you think we're stuck with? I was on a flight to Miami when they thought the landing gear was hosed, but it turned out fine."