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New Year's Eve in Times Square. Ian Cumberland was done dwelling on last year's miseries. Tonight was about new resolutions, new hopes, new opportunities. Cheerfully he stuffed his hands in his pockets and inhaled the crisp, seventeen-degree air. It was nearly midnight, and he was primed for the winds of change to blast open new doors. The neon carnival that was Times Square had seemed the ideal location—apparently it was also the ideal place for another two million huddled masses. They were huddled because those winds of change were blowing from the north at approximately thirty-five miles per hour. And not that he wanted to complain, but okay, those winds were freaking cold.
Noisemakers and plastic horns bleated in the air, riding over the upbeat tempo of the latest and greatest boy-band—greatest, that is, until they hit puberty or got involved in the latest sex scandal, whichever came first. No—no negativity. Not tonight.
Determined to make this work, Ian gave his senses free rein, marveling at all the tiny details he'd overlooked before. Ear-blasting sounds, a kaleidoscope of brilliant colors and a melting pot of smells. He took a deep breath of New York air—a million divergent perfumes, roasted chestnuts and strangely enough, honeysuckle.
Over the past year, he'd divided his life into two distinct periods. Prelayoff and postlayoff. Prelayoff ended precisely at 4:30 p.m. on February seventeenth. Then, Ian didn't have the time to waste twelve hours standing around Times Square waiting for a giant multicolored orb to fall from the sky. Post-layoff, he still didn't have the time, but now he had the will.
New Year's at Times Square had been on hislist of life to-dos since he was ten, waiting to be checked off. Prelayoff, he didn't worry much about getting to Times Square. Postlayoff, he realized that life was not cooperative and orderly, and when you got the chance to have a once-in-a-lifetime moment, you just did it.
The night's crowd was packed shoulder to shoulder. It was impossible to move, nearly impossible to breathe, and he found himself sharing the uncomfortably close personal space of a large group of awestruck foreigners who didn't understand the common English vernacular: "You're standing on my foot. Please move."
As he took in the trolling lights and squinty-eyed police and happy, perky people, Ian waited patiently for something miraculous, something life-altering, something hopeful. But all he got was a trampled foot and a deafening horn in his ear.
Still he waited, colder, sober, and now thinking that perhaps he'd been a little wiser prelayoff when he had avoided Times Square like the plague.
Hell. On what planet had he actually thought this was a good idea? It didn't matter that it was New Year's Eve, Times Square, nearly midnight. In the end, he wasn't an investment banker anymore; he was an employment counselor, and a lunatic one at that.
Beckett had told him it was stupid. Told him that nobody froze their ass off in New York in January when they could stay home and have a decent party, guzzle champagne and watch the ball drop from the confines of a well-insulated apartment. And of course, it was at that moment that Ian had looked his best friend square in the eye and launched into his winds of change spiel: new beginnings, living life—doing it right.
And there, crushed amidst two million other cockeyed optimists, he felt a killer wind shoot through him, the truth dawning with frigid clarity.
Ian was a sap. Time to pack in the New Year, accept what he had and trudge onward. Life was what it was, and nothing—not even a few mind-shattering hours in the center of the universe— was going to change it.
Feeling all sorts of foolish, he turned, starting toward the relative tranquility of the subway, because somewhere out there, his sanity and his friends were waiting. Before he managed another step, a pull at his arm knocked him off balance. Ian whirled, prepared to tell the jerkwad—foreign relations be damned—to quit touching him. But then he stopped—
She was honeysuckle in the flesh. She looked like it, smelled like it and damn, he wanted to know if she tasted like it, as well. His body shocked to life, filled, throbbed.
Hello, winds of change.
Watercolor-blue eyes were panicked and filled with worry. Warm, tawny hair streaked with gold spilled from her knitted cap.
"Have you seen my phone? I can't find my phone. Help me find my phone. Oh, God. I lost my phone."
Her voice was soft and tense against the noise of the crowd. She was searching for her phone. Help her.
"Where'd you lose it?" he asked, raising the volume, noticing the beefy tourist sizing her up with beady eyes.
"On the ground. I dropped it and I really need to find it. I shouldn't be here. It's a complete zoo. Why did I come here?"
To meet me, thought Ian, a stupid, romantic thought, right up there with his winds of change spiel. Ian grinned, a foolish, romantic grin, but he couldn't help himself. "We'll find it," he offered, and bent to the ground. She hesitated, her eyes wisely fearful, but then she bent, too, testing the restraint of millions of drunken partygoers, probably taking her life in her own hands, yet still trusting him.
At ground level it was like being underwater, swimming against the tide of directionally challenged fish. The dim light was diffused by shifting legs and restless feet and a continuous swirl of coats. Her hands grabbed for the edge of his sleeve, her eyes terrified. "You okay?" he asked, and she nodded once, but still he worried.
"We'll find it," he assured her again, keeping one hand tied to hers. With the other, he searched for what had to be the most important phone in the world.
"I can't believe I lost it," she chattered, the words tumbling out in a panic. "I can't believe I screwed up. I'm not careless. I can't be careless. I won't be careless." A clumsy set of legs bumped into her, and she jumped, flying closer to him.
"Don't get crazy. It's got to be here somewhere," he soothed, heroically gathering her closer, trying to find her phone, trying to keep her from being flattened, all the while warning himself that just because a beautiful woman stumbled into his arms, it did not mean the winds of change had finally blown his way.
Blindly he groped the rough asphalt. His hand got stomped on twice, but apparently the gods actually owed Ian something good this year and apparently Frank Capra wasn't dead in spirit—because at that moment Ian's fingers latched on to plastic. Rectangular, sturdy, magical plastic.
"Got it," he yelled, quickly pulling her upright before they were both trampled to death—which never happened in Frank Capra movies.
The flashing neon signs lit up the jittery alarm in her eyes, and he pulled her to him, instinct more than reason. "It's okay. It's here," he said, feeling the tremors run through her, absorbing them into himself. "It's a phone," he murmured, whispering against her hair. "It's only a phone. Don't cry."
"Don't like the crowd," she muttered, her face buried in his shoulder.
"You picked the wrong place to figure that out." He was relieved to hear her awkward laugh, and decided that holding a beautiful crowd-o-phobic was worth a layoff, worth being labeled a sap.
In the end, Ian had been right. New hopes. New opportunities, and they all smelled like honeysuckle.
He stroked the back of her woolen coat, feeling the slow ease of her shivering. It didn' t take her long, and he knew the exact moment when she stiffened, her chin lifted and the fear had passed. "I'm not crying. I don't cry," she told him, her voice a lot firmer than before.
Then she gazed at him—her eyes dry, and more focused than before. "I'm not crying," she repeated. "Thank you. This was stupid. I'm sorry. I don't like being stupid."
Her profile seemed so fragile, so oddly out of place in the chaos of the crowd, the lights and the noise. Her face was thin, delicate, a medieval maiden out of a fairy tale. Yet there were hollow shadows in her eyes, shadows that didn't belong with such beauty. It took more than a lost phone to cast shadows like that. Gently he tracked her cheek, pretending to wipe at nonexistent tears, only wanting to touch the golden rose of her skin.
"You're not being stupid. Everything's fine now. Everything's perfect now," he said, watching as the control eased back into her face.
"Thank you for finding my phone."
He casually shrugged off her gratitude, knowing the night was young, the year was young. What was a job, anyway? What was financial security? Totally oversold. In the big scheme of life, could anything compare to that world-by-the-tail feeling of her dreamy eyes looking at him as if he was a hero—and not just any hero, but her hero?
"It's nothing. You're okay now?" he asked, leaning in to be heard over the crowd. Oh, yeah, right.
"Sorry. I never fall apart," she answered, her head close to his, so close he could make out the carefully concealed freckles on her nose.
"Don't apologize. I fall apart on a regular basis."
She glanced at him oddly. "I was joking," he told her, and cursed himself for being a blockhead. There was something in her face, in her moon-kissed gaze, that held him fast. Hidden behind the composure, he could see a child's curiosity peering out.
Her mouth curved up, a pink Cupid's bow that touched him somewhere near his heart.
Right then, one of the tourists jammed her into him, and she started at the movement, until he pulled her close again, fast adjusting to the heady feel of her in his arms.
"I shouldn't have come here tonight. I thought I could do this."
"I know, a bunch of idiots who think New Year's Eve is a night for new dreams. What a bunch of dorks. I should have been home guzzling champagne instead of freezing my… Never mind." Once again he felt her muffled giggle and decided he didn't mind being a blockhead, didn't mind being a fool. To hear her hesitant laugh, to fit those lush curves to his body, to have her hair brush against his face.
After a moment, she raised her head and carefully studied him. "You ever do this before?"
"Never again," she answered firmly.
Apparently God was still watching, Frank was still filming and the winds of change were definitely on the move because suddenly, miraculously, the crowd began to count.
Thirty-three. Thirty-two. Thirty-one.
Her eyes glowed bright, the muted blue heating to liquid, trapping him there. Her hands locked to his lapel, as if she'd never let go. The air began to arc between them, almost visible, coiling and floating like warm breath in the chilled night.
New life. New love. New year.
Nineteen. Eighteen. Seventeen.
Totally entranced, Ian slid his right hand behind her neck, twining it in her hair with a lingering sigh. Her lips touched his even before he asked, even before he begged. Soft, sweet, and tasting like a new beginning.
When the crowd jostled her closer, Ian didn't complain, his left hand riding under her coat, finding the glorious skin of her back, the inviting curve of her waist. Around them, the world blew by, showers of confetti, bursts of cold wind and the joyous shouts of millions of not-quite-sober partiers. Ian ignored them all, because in the midst of these millions, it was only he and this woman, and the rest of their life.
Her generous mouth opened, her tongue merged with his, coaxing, seducing. Oh, yes, he was so seduced, no coaxing necessary. His nerves fired, pulsing with life, pulsing with ideas that were older than time. He would take her home. He would make love to her. He would marry her. It was the Frank Capra way.
Impulsive arms locked around his neck, burying her fingers in his hair. He could feel the insistent touch of her restless hands. Against his greedy mouth, she moaned. Music. Bells. Chimes. Somewhere he'd died and was kissing an angel.
His hand slipped lower, pressing her against him, soft to hard. Her hips curled into him, her thigh rocking between his. His eyes crossed. Nope. No angel. They didn't have moves like that in heaven.
An irritant vibrated against his leg—not his cock, nor his pulse, which were both buzzing in their own overjoyed condition. She broke away, her breathing heavy, then lifted the phone, the exact phone he'd found for her only moments before. Which, if he had not found, she would not be talking into. No, they would still be kissing. Man, he was such a stupid dweeb.
Next to them, one of the tourists shot him a look of male approval, but Ian ignored it, trying to restart his brain. Here was the inspiration he'd been seeking.
As she talked, her gaze scanned the length of his cashmere coat. For the first time, he could see that elusive recognition flicker in her eyes—seeing him as a man who was worthy—financially viable. Possibly insecure, but there it was. Maybe the male code had some unwritten law saying it was cowardly to trade on his past life, but did geeky Clark Kent ever want to throw open his jacket, exposing the all-powerful S? Hell, yeah.
The shouts of the crowd fell away. Only her words touched his ears. She was talking, trying to reconnect with her date. Date? No!
Ian wanted to yell at her to hang up because this was kismet, karma, and the entire outcome of his postlayoff life rested upon this one moment—no pressure. Instead, he kept his mouth shut, a confident grin plastered on his face as if this didn' t mean a damn thing.
When she looked at Ian again, the soft blue eyes were so lonely and sad. He wondered if she had sensed the pull, too. Ian had never felt it before, never met a woman who stepped out of his dreams and into his arms. It should have been fate.
"I'm over here," she said into the phone, waving a graceful hand in the air for someone other than Ian. Other than Ian. He wanted to stop her because she couldn't be with someone else. This was a new year. New opportunities. New loves…
"I have to go. He's my date," she apologized, dashing the final vestiges of his hope to the ground much like last year's sodden confetti.
"No surprise there," answered Ian, his voice faux cheerful. "Have a good year." Have a nice life.
One heartbeat later, her expression turned to the well-mannered smile given to a stranger on the street. Without another word, she politely asked her beefy neighbor to move out of the way, and then she moved out of Ian's life.
All before he'd even gotten her name.