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Natalie Compton gripped the armrest of her coach class window seat as the jet bounced and shuddered on its ascent above the gleaming waters of the Atlantic. Take-offs always frightened her. Landings did too. She took several deep breaths and thought how ironic it would be to die before her feet touched foreign soil when she did not even want to go to Italy. Not anymore. Not since her friend had to back out of the trip. And not since Natalie had learned that she would be living alone when she returned home in less than a month.
"Don't go there," she whispered. "Don't even think about it."
The elderly gentleman in the seat beside her gave her a curious glance.
"Don't go to the Riviera," Natalie told him in a weak attempt to hide the fact that she'd been talking to herself. "Too many tourists. Too expensive."
He nodded, then proceeded to pray aloud for the safety of the plane and its passengers as the aircraft continued to fishtail through the clouds. If she was frightened and he was frightened, then maybe there was something to be frightened about. Her fingernails made crescent-shaped dents in the armrests on both sides of her seat. She glanced out the window at the engines mounted in the wing, half expecting to see sparks shooting from them. After several tense moments of what the British captain called "light turbulence," the airplane finally leveled off enough for Natalie to stretch the kinks out of her knuckles.
The seatbelt light chimed off on the panel above them. Natalie turned to the man in her row and smiled. "It should be pretty smooth sailing now until we land."
"If the good Lord wills it."
Natalie's smile faltered."Right."
"Hey, Nat." Brenda, one of the young women in their group, called from a seat in the middle section. Natalie knew the cute brunette's mother from a recent technology workshop. "Check out the Italian thong. Did you get one?" An object with thin black straps dangled from Brenda's fingers. The two blonde girls, in the seats next to her, giggled.
Natalie's eyes widened. She had tucked the small plastic package that had been on her seat into the stretchy storage pocket in front of her. She reached for it now, finding a pair of socks, a travel toothbrush with a tiny tube of toothpaste ... and a black thong. Never having been on a long flight before, Natalie had no idea what the airlines normally provided its passengers. Fresh socks and underwear--if thongs counted as underwear--sounded reasonable enough, she supposed.
Natalie stared at the item for a long moment, then shrugged. "Attire for the beaches of the Amalfi Coast, I guess."
Brenda and her friends burst into laughter. Natalie gaped at the girls, who now wore their "thongs" over their eyes. One glance at other passengers reclining in nearby seats confirmed that the item in question was actually a sleep mask.
"Of course," Natalie said with a chuckle, "they could double as eye covers, if you really needed them to."
Brenda pushed the mask up onto her forehead. "You're a good sport, Nat."
"Oh, I know you're laughing with me." She smiled at the girl.
"Here." Brenda passed a book across the aisle.
"Pardon me," Natalie told the man beside her as she leaned over him. He'd been watching the exchange between her and the girls with a disapproving frown. Natalie glanced at the book cover. The Agony and the Ecstasy, one of the titles from Dr. Larson's required reading list.
"Thanks, Brenda, but I've finished it. Didn't you just love it?" The tome on Michelangelo's life had fascinated her. Knowing that she would have the opportunity to see some of his masterpieces in person had helped convince her to make the trip regardless of her misgivings.
Brenda shrugged and made a face. "I found it a little dry. But look inside."
The instant she saw the small white pill hidden in the center of the book, Natalie slammed it shut in alarm.
Brenda laughed. "It's just a sleeping pill. Try it. We all took half of one. No joke." The brunette gestured at the two other girls sitting with her, and they all nodded. "My mom has to take a whole one to have any effect, so you should probably do the same. I guarantee you will have a great nap and wake up ready for an exciting night in Roma."
Natalie had planned on heading straight for bed when they arrived in Rome, though she doubted she would be able to rest much on her first night in a foreign country. A full night of sleep often eluded her even in the most familiar surroundings. She peeked at the pill again.
"Don't worry, it's legal," Brenda assured her. "Dr. Larson recommended we try to nap during the flight, and you don't want to start the trip sleep-deprived, do you?"
"Not especially." Natalie thanked her and swallowed the pill with a sip of water, then turned back to the window.
As a child, she had imagined skipping happily through the fluffy expanse of white cotton candy clouds. Loathing that she had to take turns in the window seat with her sister on their family trips before her little brother was born, she'd lean across Sheryl and make excited comments about all the angels she saw playing harps and flutes on billowy clouds until the older girl would say, "Just take the stupid seat and shut up!"