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"Just thinkthis is your last trip as an unmarried woman."
Zoe Smythe kept nodding and welcoming aboard first-class passengers on the Atlanta flight bound for Sydney, Australia, trying to ignore her friend Erica's comment. "Welcome aboard. Good evening. May I take your coat?"
Erica leaned in. "Are you going to do something wild and outrageous during your layover in Sydney after I leave?"
Zoe gave a dry laugh. "Hardly. I brought a stack of things that have to be finalized for the wedding."
"That doesn't sound like fun," Erica said, then elbowed Zoe. "Welcome to married life." Erica cackled at her own joke. "Well, for the two days that I'm there, I propose that we ingest large amounts of alcohol and take up residence in the hotel spa."
"Sounds good," Zoe agreed.
"Maybe we'll get lucky and our masseuse will be a big, strapping Aussie."
"Maybe." Zoe bit back a smile. Erica's marriage was sex-starved.
"Seriously, though, I'm going to miss having you on this route, Zoe."
"Thanks, but a domestic route will allow me to be home more."
"You'll be changing back after a couple of years," Erica said drily.
Zoe frowned good-naturedly, then turned her attention back to the passengers.
"Welcome aboard. Good evening. May I take your coat?"
"Yes, thank you."
At the sound of the thick Australian accent, Zoe tipped up her head to meet the gaze of the clearest, greenest eyes she'd ever seen, slightly hooded and set off with straight, sun-tipped lashes. The man behind them was tall with coarse blond hair cut close to his head and a five o'clock shadow on his square jaw. Zoe sucked in a breath. The stranger exuded raw masculinity. The leather duster he shrugged out of was the color of baked ocher, conjuring up images of the parched land of the Outback. Beneath the rugged coat he wore an impeccably cut gray business suit, although his shirt collar was open and his tie loosened.
A corporate cowboy? How intriguing. "Did you enjoy your stay in Atlanta, sir?" she asked as she took his coat and suit jacket.
"I did," he said with a smile. "But it's always nice to get back home and sleep in my own bed."
It was an innocent enough statement, one she'd heard travelers say countless times during her stint as a flight attendant. But something about the way he said it conjured up images of the big man sprawled naked in a giant bed made of hand-hewn logs. Zoe gave herself a mental shake. What was wrong with her?
"If I may see your boarding pass, sir, I'll show you to your seat."
He handed her the document and her pulse spikedhe was sitting in her section. She glanced at his nameColin Cannonthen handed back his boarding pass. "Mr. Cannon, right this way."
Zoe felt his gaze on her back as he followed her, and was absurdly glad she'd taken pains with her appearance. She'd worn one of the sharper uniforms in her work wardrobe, a black skirt and a thin dove-gray wrap sweater, and had twisted her dark brown hair into a low knot on the nape of her neck. She chastised herself for caring what she looked like for this passengerit wasn't the behavior of a woman who was a month away from marrying the man of her dreams.
"Here you are, sir, seat 4A. My name is Zoe and I'll be seeing to your needs during the first half of the flight." Standing so close, she had to look straight up at the tall man. The proximity unnerved her and suddenly her small talk seemed laced with innuendo.
"Zoepretty name." He was unbuttoning his shirtsleeves, rolling them up, revealing powerful arms that were tanned and covered with light-colored hair.
"Th-thank you. Would you like a cocktail before we take off?"
"A vodka on the rocks would be great, thanks."
Zoe was relieved to step into the tiny galley to prepare the drink. To her dismay, her heart thudded against her breastbone and her face felt warm.
"Lucky dog," Erica whispered in her ear. "You always get the hunks."
"Trade me sections," Zoe said earnestly.
Erica squinted. "Why?"
Zoe's mind raced for an excuse. "Uh I'm getting a vibe from Mr. 4A."
Erica leaned backward to glance at the topic of conversation.
Zoe grabbed her friend's arm. "Don't look! He'll know we're talking about him."
Erica grinned. "So? What kind of vibe are you talking about? He certainly doesn't look like a perv."
"No, he's not a perv. He's um "
"He's hot." Then Erica gasped. "Oh my goodnessyou like him, don't you?"
Zoe scoffed. "That's crazy. I'm getting married in a month, remember?" Feeling out of sorts, she touched Erica's arm. "Look, just do me this favor, okay?"
Erica shrugged. "Fine with me. But I warn you, the couple in 8A and B seem to be on the verge of a divorce."
Zoe picked up the drink she'd poured. "Thanks. I'll deliver this, then check in with your warring couple."
Exhaling in relief, she walked back to Colin Cannon's seat where his big body took up every inch of the generous space, his long legs extending to the bulkhead in front of him. The man was vast and unrestrained, like his mother country.
As he lifted his head, he raked his gaze over her legs and every inch of her until he made eye contact. At his appreciative stare, a vacuum seemed to develop around themher ears popped as if the cabin was changing pressure. There was something about this man that spoke to her confused her. With a mere glance, he made everything female deep inside her open and expand. Her breathing increased, her throat tightened. Swapping sections with Erica was definitely the right move, she decided. There was something unmanageable here that she dared not explore.
Her hand shook slightly as she gave him the drinkwith good reason. When his fingers brushed hers, a current of awareness shot up her arm. Strangely, a sense of déjà vu tickled her memory, but she couldn't put her finger on why. Nor did she want to.
"Mr. Cannon," she said, "as it turns out, I won't be taking care of this section after all."
Disappointment flashed across his face. "Did I scare you off?"
Zoe swallowed. "It has nothing to do with you, sir."
He looked as if he didn't believe her, then lifted his glass. "Cheers, then."
She nodded and walked away, troubled by the regret that plucked at her as if she had turned her back on a life-changing encounter. Something wonderful or something dangerous. When she stole a glance over her shoulder at the golden-haired Aussie, he was still looking at her with those intense green eyes.
Zoe turned back and manufactured a smile for the young professional couple that Erica had warned her about. Indeed, Jill and Jeremy Osbourne were shooting daggers at each other and trading barbs in tones that did not bode well for the long trip ahead of them. Worse, they seemed determined to draw Zoe into their squabble.
"What do you think about a woman who packs twenty-three pairs of designer shoes for a ten-day trip?" Jeremy Osbourne asked, his words wrapped in sarcasm.
"What do you think about a man who brings his laptop on his second honeymoon?" Jill Osbourne asked in a matching tone.
"Is this your first trip to Australia?" Zoe asked cheerfully.
"Yes," they said in unison, both sounding miserable.
"I wanted to go to Hawaii," the woman said, her voice accusing.
"I thought this would be an adventure," her husband retorted.
"And you expect me to believe that this trip has nothing to do with the fact that your biggest client is in Sydney?" his wife shrieked.
"My job pays for your shoes!" he returned.
"Sydney is a romantic choice for your second honeymoon," Zoe soothed.
"Are you married?" Jill Osbourne asked.
"In one month," Zoe said with a smile.
"You still have time to reconsider," the woman said pointedly.
"It's certainly not all it's cracked up to be," her husband agreed with a shake of his newspaper.
The tension between the couple was palpable. They knew every button to push and continued to antagonize each other over a sumptuous meal of surf and turf. The rich red wine only seemed to fuel their long-running argument. Zoe bit her tongue and wondered why they bothered staying married if they provoked each other so bitterly. If she and Kevin ever argued like that
She shook her head. She and Kevin would never end up like that. Would they?
They had been together for nearly six years, engaged for half that time. They knew each other so well, sometimes she felt as if they already were married. It was comforting to be so comfortable. She couldn't imagine her and Kevin being at each other's throats the way this couple was. They infected everybody around them.
Which was silly, because no marriage was perfect, was it? She had a healthy grasp of Kevin's idiosyncrasies, and vice versa. It was good, wasn't it, that they were friends first, lovers second? And it was good that they didn't agree on everythingit meant that they both had to compromise. Not that they would end up like this feuding couple or her own quarrelsome parents or Kevin's.
Her anxiety level was driven higher by the fact that she felt the Aussie's gaze on her as she moved about the first-class cabin, especially when they stopped in San Francisco to refuel and most passengers took advantage of the opportunity to stretch their legs. He paced the aisle, his big body taking up much of the available space. Even first class wasn't designed for men of his size. She wondered vaguely if he was a professional athlete. Colin Cannon had descended from a pretty spectacular gene pool, and despite the immaculate suit, his body wasn't that of a man who sat behind a desk for most of his day.
Their eyes met and a shiver of feminine appreciation traveled up her spine. She was as aware of him as if they were sitting next to each other, knees touching. It was strange, feeling as though everyone else on the plane were extras in a private little drama between the two of them. How could she feel such a powerful connection to a person with whom she'd exchanged only a few words?
She couldn't, she decided, dragging her gaze from his. It was an illusion brought on by the thin air, fatigue and nerves over the unfinished wedding details that still needed to be handled. She tried to put the man out of her mind as the final and longest leg of their flight got under way, tending to the passengers in her section, including the high-maintenance, sniping couple.
By the time her shift had ended somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, the Osbournes had, mercifully, fallen asleep along with most of the other passengers. The cabin was dark except for the lone reading light illuminating the man in 4A. He appeared to be immersed in some sort of thick, bound report, his head bent in thought, his hands moving occasionally to mark a page.
She wanted to ask him what business he was in or if he needed a blanket, anything to hear the pleasing inflection of his accent. Her body tingled, strained toward him, even with multiple rows of seats dividing them. It was an alien feeling. She never flirted with passengers or took advantage of the many opportunities to hook up with single and married men during her travels. She had always been faithful to Kevin, had never even considered getting herself into a situation that could get out of hand.
Until now. There was something so compelling about this man. Zoe half wished she hadn't traded sections with Erica. Perhaps during the flight she would've learned something about him that would've rendered him less appealing. He could be married with a house full of kids involved in shady business dealings a male chauvinist with objectionable views on the human condition.
As if he sensed her attention, he turned his head and smiled, then gestured her over.
Zoe had no choice but to comply. Her heart rate increased with every step. She stopped next to his seat and leaned close so their conversation wouldn't wake the other passengers. "Yes, Mr. Cannon?"
"I'm sorry to bother you, Zoe, but I left something in the pocket of my suit jacket and I didn't see where you hung it."
He smelled of some lingering, unidentifiable spice that warmed her lungs. "I'll get it for you," she murmured.
"Thank you." His mouth curved into a smile that extended to his remarkable, sexy eyes that simmered with just enough merriment to dispel any idea she might have had that he was dangerous.
The coat closet took her out of his range of sight, which gave her a few minutes to compose herself. She was behaving like a schoolgirl, allowing a man's physical presence to affect her. This wasn't like her. She put her hand to her forehead and acknowledged the elevated heat. Maybe she was coming down with something. She exhaled slowly. Yes, with a little rest and a couple of aspirin, she'd be back to herself again.
Zoe found Mr. Cannon's jacket and pulled it out of the closet. When she folded it over her arm, though, something fell out of the inside breast pocket and landed by her foot. A black jeweler's boxring size. She scooped it up and looked all around to make sure she was alone. Stroking the velvety surface, she fought the urge to peek inside. An engagement ring, perhaps? It seemed likely, since Mr. Cannon wasn't wearing a wedding ring.