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Ellen Layne knew it was a mistake to leave the house without a book.
But her uncle Bob had insisted there wouldn't be a single moment of downtime all evening–a quick trip in the limo to Kennedy Airport, intercept Great-Aunt Alma as she began her three-hour stopover before her flight to London, dinner at one of the airport restaurants, then back home after tucking Alma safely on the red-eye to England.
They would watch the tape of last night's show on the VCR in the stretch limousine, he'd told her. And even though Ellen had already watched her legendary uncle's late night talk show when it aired, she knew he wouldn't appreciate her reading while his face was on the screen.
Bob Osborne, the king of late night television, was good at an awful lot of things, but being ignored wasn't on the list.
So now here she was, in Kennedy Airport, waiting for a flight from Chicago that had been delayed for an hour, with nothing whatsoever to read.
It was something of a fluke that they were even here. Bob was supposed to be in Boston preparing for next week's broadcast of his show from Faneuil Hall, and Ellen had an acting class that usually ran from six to nine. So Bob had made arrangements for someone else to meet Alma's plane. But then her acting coach had gotten cast in a local film and the class had been canceled, and Bob had been called back to New York this afternoon for a meeting with his network's executives, so here they were.
And Ellen was here without a book.
Bob was happy as a little clam, interrogating the security guards who X-rayed the carry-on luggage and ran metal detectors over people who set the walk-through gates abuzz. His team of bodyguards–who doubled as both built-in audience and straight men–hovered nearby.
Ellen had escaped and now headed for one of the airport newsstands, hoping they would have something that she hadn't yet read.
There was a book rack that held all of the New York Times bestsellers and then some, but what really caught her eye was the young man standing in front of it.
From the back he was a living, breathing advertisement for Buns of Steel. He was wearing softly faded blue jeans with a white button-down shirt tucked into the waist. His shirtsleeves were rolled up and his sport jacket hung casually over one shoulder.
His hair was blond and thick and wavy, and longish in the back, spilling over his collar. It was the kind of hair that was meant to be touched.
Ellen stood next to him and, gazing up at the rows of books, risked a sidelong glance.
He was even better looking from the front.
His profile was something to write poetry about, with a long, straight, elegantly shaped nose and an exceedingly firm chin and . . .
Oh, perfect–he'd caught her staring.
Feeling the heat of a blush on her cheeks, Ellen reached for the nearest book and flipped through it.
"That's a good one," the man said. His voice was husky and rich, with only the slightest trace of urban New York. He was even younger than she'd first thought–probably not much more than twenty-five or twenty-six.
She had probably been ten years old when he was born. That was a sobering thought. She'd worked as a mother's helper when she was ten, and she'd frequently changed the diapers of a baby boy who was probably around this young man's age now. Andy Tyler was his name. This could very well be Andy Tyler standing there next to her, his diaper rash long since cleared up.
He'd turned to face her, leaning casually against the book rack with one elbow.
He was impossibly handsome, with the kind of eyes that were startling in their blueness. He had cheekbones that were as strong as his chin, giving his face a rugged, angular look and offsetting the prettiness of his elegant nose and gracefully shaped lips. There was a small scar near his right eyebrow that made him look just the slightest bit battle worn.
She was staring at him again, blankly. He'd said something to her, hadn't he?
He smiled, and dimples appeared alongside the corners of his mouth. His teeth were straight and white and as perfect as the rest of him. He gestured toward the book in her hands.
"Have you read any of his stuff?"
Ellen glanced at the paperback she was holding. Alien Contact, by the popular nonfiction writer T. S. Harrison. It was a fascinating collection of interviews both with people who claimed they'd been abducted by aliens and with scientists and psychologists who discounted those claims.
"Yes," she said, finding her voice. "Yeah. Actually, I've read this one already. I've read them all–except for his most recent release. Have you? Read his . . . stuff?"
The young man smiled again, and this time his eyes seemed to twinkle. Lord, he was good-looking–and he knew it.
"Every word of every book," he said. "He's one of my favorite writers. But I'm prejudiced. T.S. is a good friend of mine. I know him pretty well."
Ellen flipped the book over, but there was no picture on the back. There was never a picture on the back of T. S. Harrison's books. He never made public appearances, never put his face in the spotlight–never showed his face, period. "Really? I've heard he's something of a recluse."
"No, he's just careful about his privacy." The young man grinned. "I think he's afraid some head case is going to come after him with a gun."
"I don't blame him." Ellen thought of the security system installed in Bob's town house. The place was like a fortress, made complete by his staff of highly trained and highly paid bodyguards. These days celebrities couldn't be careful enough.
"Are you coming or going?" the man asked, his gaze skimming briefly down her body, taking in her sleeveless silk blouse, her slim-fitting skirt, her tanned legs, the soft leather sandals on her feet.
Ellen couldn't believe it. He was checking her out, his gaze lingering just long enough on her curves and her legs to make sure that she knew he appreciated what he saw, but not long enough to be rude. And when he met her eyes again, she saw a definite spark of interest and attraction.
But he'd just asked her something. Was she coming or going? It didn't quite make sense.
He picked up on her confusion easily–no doubt he was a pro at reading women's body language–and explained. "We're in the airport. Most people are either coming in or flying out."
"Or waiting for a delayed plane to arrive," she said.
"You too, huh?"
"Waiting for your husband's flight?" It was a loaded question. He was fishing for information.
Ellen was flattered. And amused. And intrigued enough to tell him what he wanted to know. "I don't have a husband. At least not anymore."
"I'm sorry. When did he die? I figure he's got to be dead–or insane. No one in their right mind would walk away from a woman like you."
Ellen had to laugh. "Does that usually work for you? I mean, it's such an obvious line."
"I can be more subtle if you like."
The look in his eyes was anything but subtle. But, still, Ellen couldn't take him seriously. This was just a lighthearted flirtation, a casual chemistry experiment. He was bored and she was available as a distraction.
But she was bored too–or at least she had been, up until about three minutes ago. She glanced at her watch. Another thirty minutes before Alma's flight came in. She had plenty of time, and there was definitely no harm in flirting. Even if he was much too young.
And it had been years since she'd let herself look into a handsome man's eyes and fantasize about the limitless possibilities–and known that he was fantasizing the very same thing.
"I definitely like subtle," she told him.
There was a flare of something in his eyes. Victory? Excitement? Amusement? She couldn't tell.
"You're not a native New Yorker," he said. "I can tell from your accent. Or rather, your lack of accent. Where are you from?"
"Are you here in the Big Apple for just the day, or . . . ?"
"For the summer."
"Only the summer?"
She nodded. Her kids would need to be back in Connecticut when school started in September, but she didn't want to tell him that. Her baby son, Jamie, was going into eighth grade. And Lydia, her daughter, was going to be a high school sophomore. It probably hadn't been more than seven or eight years since this man had been in high school himself. "I've always wanted to live in New York," she told him, "so I took the summer off and . . . here I am."
"Greatest city in the world," he said. "You can come to New York and behave as outrageously as you want–within the confines of the law, of course–and no one will even take notice. There's a real anonymity in the crowds."
"That was very subtle," she said. "The behaving outrageously part."
His dimples appeared again. "Thank you. I thought so too. And as long as we're on the topic–do you like going to art museums?"
"Not really. In fact, not at all." Ellen gazed at him pensively. "I'm not sure I get the connection. Outrageous behavior and art museums? Unless maybe you have the habit of doing something in art museums other than looking at the exhibits."
"Actually, in my opinion, art museums are the opposite of outrageous, so it's a negative connection. Art museums tend to be nonthreatening and well lit–and that's a perfect first-date ambiance. See, I could ask you for your phone number to make a date to go to an art museum, and you might actually give it to me. The art museum approach tends to work a little bit better than the truth."
The look in his eyes was making her heart pound. She knew she shouldn't push it, but she couldn't resist. After all, she had no intention of actually giving this man her phone number, to go to an art museum with him or not. It didn't matter how charming and handsome he was. "And which truth would that be?"
The dimples deepened. "I don't know–give me a few seconds to come up with a good answer."
"I can't believe you're not ready with a snappy comeback."
"That's because I have this overpowering urge to tell you the real truth–that the combination of your perfume and your smile is hypnotizing."
"So much for subtle."
"I lied," he admitted cheerfully. "I'm hardly ever subtle and I hate going to art museums. Besides, subtle doesn't seem to be working too well with you, so I'm going to switch to the direct approach." He held out his hand. "My name's Sam, and I'd love it if you gave me your phone number."
Ellen hesitated only for a fraction of a second before she slipped her fingers into his. Sam's hand was warmer and much larger than hers, his fingers and palm slightly callused. It was a nice hand, a strong hand, a not-at-all subtle hand with blunt-tipped fingers and short-trimmed nails. She liked his hand. She liked his name too. Sam. It suited him.
"I'm Ellen," she told him. She gave him a smile instead of her phone number.
He held on to her fingers even though the handshake had long since ended, lightly stroking the tops of her knuckles with his thumb. "Ellen, if you give me your phone number, I promise when I call that I won't ask you to go to an art museum."
"I'm sorry, I really can't." Ellen gently pulled her hand free, turning back to the book rack. "So, what do you recommend?"
"Dinner at a supper club, with lots of slow dancing."
She shot him a look. "You're a natural for The Dating Game. I meant, what do you recommend to read?"
"Oh. I guess . . . anything by Grisham."
"I know. How about a romance?"
"Ooh," Ellen said. "Another flash of subtlety."
"I'm still trying."
He may have wanted her phone number, but he was also being careful not to stand too close and not to appear threatening in any way. She liked Sam, she realized. His sense of humor seemed solid, and his smile was off the scale. And those neon blue eyes. Talk about hypnotizing. She could imagine how heavenly his arms would feel around her, slow-dancing to some old, familiar song. . . .
The airport loudspeaker cut through her reverie. "Paging Ellen Layne. Will Ellen L-A-Y-N-E Layne please come to the information desk immediately?"
"I'm sorry, they're calling me–I have to go."
"Without giving me your number?"
"Sorry, I can't. It was nice talking to you." She started toward the door, determined to be strong. It would be certifiably insane to give her phone number–Bob's phone number–to a stranger she'd met at the airport. And add into that equation the fact that Sam was ridiculously young . . . "I am sorry," she said.
"Okay, then I'll give you mine." He fumbled in his jacket for his card.
But she didn't have time to wait. And she didn't want the temptation of this man's business card, tossed into the bottom of her purse where she could reach in and get it and dial the number in some sudden moment of weakness. "I really have to go right now," she said, backing away. "It was nice meeting you."
He gave up searching and followed her to the door. She turned, picking up her pace, half hoping he wouldn't chase her all the way across the airport and half hoping he would.
"Look, it's easy to remember–555-2356," he called after her. "The numbers are in sequence, just skip the four. I'm in the 212 area code."
Ellen couldn't resist looking back.
Sam wasn't following her. He was standing in the doorway of the newsstand, watching her walk away. "Call me," he mouthed, miming a telephone with his hands. "555-2356."
She tried to fill her mind with information, not wanting to remember Sam's phone number. She tried to crowd her brain with trivial wonderings: Was there going to be enough time for her to stop at the market tonight? They were out of watermelon, and this time of year she lived on fresh fruit. And Lydia. Her daughter had an audition for a commercial on Monday. Ellen had to remember to look at that big street map of the city that Bob had on the wall of his home office to pinpoint the location of the casting agency holding the audition.
No, there was definitely no room in her head for remembering any numbers. Even ones in an easy sequence like 555-2356.
From the Paperback edition.