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'I'm going to have to go,' Meg said to her mother. 'They've finished boarding, so I'd better turn off my phone.'
'You'll be fine for a while yet.' Ruth Hamilton persisted with their conversation. 'Did you finish up the work for the Evans purchase?'
'Yes.' Meg tried to keep the edge from her voice. She really wanted just to turn off the phone and relax. Meg hated flying. Well, not all of itjust the take-off part. All she wanted to do was close her eyes and listen to music, take some nice calming breaths before the plane prepared for its departure from Sydney Airportexcept, as usual, her mother wanted to talk about work. 'Like I said,' Meg said calmly, because if she so much as gave a hint that she was irritated her mum would want to know more, 'everything is up-to-date.'
'Good,' Ruth said, but still she did not leave things there.
Meg coiled a length of her very straight red hair around and around one finger, as she always did when either tense or concentrating.
'You need to make sure that you sleep on the plane, Meg, because you'll be straight into it once you land. You wouldn't believe how many people are here. There are so many opportunities '
Meg closed her eyes and held on to a sigh of frustration as her mum chatted on about the conference and then moved to travel details. Meg already knew that a car would meet her at Los Angeles airport and take her straight to the hotel where the conference was being held. And, yes, she knew she would have about half an hour to wash and get changed.
Meg's parents were prominent in Sydney's real estate market and were now looking to branch into overseas investments for some of their clients. They had left for Los Angeles on Friday to network, while Meg caught up with the paperwork backlog at the office before joining them.
Meg knew that she should be far more excited at the prospect of a trip to Los Angeles. Usually she loved visiting new places, and deep down Meg knew that really she had nothing to complain aboutshe was flying business class and would be staying in the sumptuous hotel where the conference was being held. She would play the part of successful professional, as would her parents.
Even though, in truth, the family business wasn't doing particularly well at the moment.
Her parents were always very eager to jump on the latest get-rich-quick scheme. Meg, who could always be relied on for sensible advice, had suggested that rather than all of them flying over maybe just one of them should go, or perhaps they should give it a miss entirely and concentrate on the properties they already had on their books.
Of course her parents hadn't wanted to hear that. This, they had insisted, was the next big thing.
Meg doubted it.
It wasn't that, though, which caused her disquiet.
Really, when she had suggested that only one of them gogiven that she dealt with the legal side of things Meg had rather hoped they might have considered sending only her.
A week away wasn't just a luxury she requiredit was fast becoming a necessity. And it wasn't about the nice hotelshe'd stay in a tent if she had to, just for the break, just for a pause so that she could think properly. Meg felt as if she were suffocatingthat wherever she turned her parents were there, simply not giving her room to think. It had been like that for as long as she could remember, and sometimes she felt as if her whole life had been planned out in advance by her parents.
In truth, it probably had.
Meg had little to complain about. She had her own nice flat in Bondibut, given that she worked twelve-hour days, she never really got to enjoy it, and there was always something at work that needed her attention at weekends: a signature to chase up, a contract to read through. It just never seemed to end.
'We're actually going to look at a couple of properties this afternoon ' Her mum carried on talking as there was a flurry of activity in the aisle beside Meg.
'Well, don't go agreeing to anything until I get there,' Meg warned. 'I mean it, Mum.'
She glanced over and saw that two flight attendants were assisting a gentleman. His face was blocked from Meg's vision by the overhead lockers, but certainly from his physique this man didn't look as if he required assistance.
He was clearly tall and extremely fit-looking, and from what Meg could see he appeared more than capable of putting his own laptop into the overhead locker, yet the attendants danced around him, taking his jacket and offering their apologies as he went to take the seat beside Meg.
As his face came into view Meg, who was already struggling, completely lost her place in the conversation with her mother. The man was absolutely stunning, with very thick, beautifully cut black hair worn just a little too long, so that it flopped over his forehead. He had a very straight Roman nose and high cheekbones. Really, he had all the markings of a very good-looking man, but it was his mouth that held her attentionperfectly shaped, like a dark bruise of red in the black of his unshaven jaw, and even though it was a scowling mouth, it was quite simply beautiful.
He threw a brief nod in Meg's direction as he took the seat beside her.
Clearly somebody wasn't very happy!
As he sat down Meg caught his scenta mixture of expensive cologne and manand, though she was trying to focus on what her mother was saying, Meg's mind kept wandering to the rather terse conversation that was taking place beside her as the flight attendants did their best to appease a man whom, it would seem, wasn't particularly easy to appease.
'No,' he said to the attendant. 'This will be sorted to my satisfaction as soon as we have taken off.'
He had a deep, low voice that was rich with an accent Meg couldn't quite place. Perhaps Spanish, she thought, but wasn't quite sure.
What she was sure of, though, was that he demanded too much of her attention.
Not consciously, of courseshe just about carried on talking to her mother, her finger still twirling in her hairbut she could not stop listening to the conversation that was none of her business.
'Once again,' the flight attendant said to him, 'we apologise for any inconvenience, Mr Dos Santos.' Then she turned her attention to Meg, and although friendly and polite, the flight attendant was not quite so gushing as she had so recently been to Meg's fellow passenger. 'You need to turn off your phone, Ms Hamilton. We are about to prepare for take-off.'
'I really do have to go, Mum,' Meg said. 'I'll see you there.' With a sigh of relief she turned off her phone. 'The best part of flying,' she said as she did sonot necessarily to him.
'There is nothing good about flying' came his brusque response as the plane started to taxi towards the runway. Seeing her raised eyebrows, he tempered his words a little. 'At least not today.'
She gave him a small smile and offered a quick 'Sorry,' then looked ahead rather than out of the window. After all he could be in the middle of a family emergency and racing to get somewhere. There could be many reasons for his bad mood and it was none of her business after all.
She was actually quite surprised when he answered her, and when she turned she realised that he was still looking at her. 'Usually I do like flyingI do an awful lot of itbut today there are no seats in first class.'
Niklas Dos Santos watched as she blinked at his explanation. She had very green eyes that were staring right at him. He expected her to give a murmur of sympathy or a small tut tut as to the airline's inefficiency; those were the responses that he was used to, so he was somewhat taken aback at hers.
'Poor you!' She smiled. 'Having to slum it back here in business class.'
'As I said, I fly a lot, and as well as working while flying I need to sleep on the planesomething that is now going to be hard to do. Admittedly I only changed my plans this morning, but even so ' He didn't continue. Niklas thought that was the end of the conversation, that he had explained his dark mood well enough. He hoped that now they could sit in mutual silence, but before he could look away the woman in the seat next to him spoke again.
'Yes, it's terribly inconsiderate of themnot to keep a spare seat for you just in case your plans happen to change.'
She smiled as she said it and he understood that she was jokingsort of. She was nothing like anyone he usually dealt with. Normally people revered him, or in the case of a good-looking womanwhich she possibly wasthey came on to him.
He was used to dark-haired, immaculately groomed women from his home town. Now and then he liked blondeswhich she was, sort of. Her hair was a reddish blonde. But, unlike the women he usually went for, there was a complete lack of effort on her part. She was very neatly dressed, in three-quarter-length navy trousers and a cream blouse that was delicate and attractive. Yet the blouse was buttoned rather high and she wore absolutely no make-up. He glanced down to nails that were neat but neither painted nor manicured and, yes, he did check for a ring.
Had the engines not revved then she might have noticed that glance. Had she not looked away at that moment she might have been granted the pleasure of one of his very rare smiles. For she seemed refreshingly unimpressed by him, and Niklas had decided she was not a possibly good-looking woman in the least
But she spoke too much.
He would set the tone now, Niklas decided. Just ignore her if she spoke again. He had a lot of work to get through during this flight and did not want to be interrupted every five minutes with one of her random thoughts.
Niklas was not the most talkative personat least he did not waste words speaking about nothingand he certainly wasn't interested in her assumptions. He just wanted to get to Los Angeles with as much work and sleep behind him as possible. He closed his eyes as the plane hurtled down the runway, yawned, and decided that he would doze till he could turn on his laptop.
And then he heard her breathing.
And it only got louder.
He gritted his teeth at her slight moan as the plane lifted off the runway and turned to shoot her an irritated lookbut, given that her eyes were closed, instead he stared. She was actually fascinating to look at: her nose was snubbed, her lips were wide and her eyelashes were a reddish blonde too. But she was incredibly tense, and she was taking huge long breaths that made her possibly the most annoying woman in the world. He could not take it for the next twelve hours, and Niklas decided he would be speaking again to the flight attendantsomeone would have to move out of first class.
Simply, this would not do.
Meg breathed in through her nose and then out through her mouth as she concentrated on using her stomach muscles to control her breathing as her 'fear of flying' exercises had told her to do. She twisted her hair over and over, and when that wasn't helping she gripped onto the handrests, worried by the terrible rattling noise above her as the plane continued its less than smooth climb. It really was an incredibly bumpy takeoff, and she loathed this part more than anythingcould not relax until the flight stewards stood up and the seatbelt signs went off.
As the plane tilted a little to the left Meg's eyes screwed more tightly closed. She moaned again and Niklas, who had been watching her strange actions the whole time, noted not just that her skin had turned white but that there was no colour in her lips.
The minute the signs went off he would speak with the flight attendant. He didn't care if it was a royal family they had tucked in first class; someone was going to have to make room for him! Knowing that he always got his way, and that soon he would be moving, Niklas decided that for a moment or two he could afford to be nice.
She was clearly terrified after all.
'You do know that this is the safest mode of transport, don't you?'
'Logically, yes,' she answered with her eyes still closed. 'It just doesn't feel very safe right now.'
'Well, it is,' he said.
'You said that you fly a lot?' She wanted him to tell her that he flew every single day, that the noise overhead was completely normal and nothing to worry about, preferably that he was in fact a pilotthen she might possibly believe that everything was okay.
All the time,' came his relaxed response, and it soothed her.
'And that noise?'
'What noise?' He listened for a second or two. 'That's the wheels coming up.' 'No, that one.'
It all sounded completely normal to him, yet Niklas realised she probably wasn't quite normal, so he continued to speak to her. 'Today I am flying to Los Angeles, as are you, and in two days' time I will be heading to New York.'
'Then?' Meg asked, because his voice was certainly preferable to her thoughts right now.
'Then I will be flying home to Brazil, where I am hoping to take a couple of weeks off.'
'You're from Brazil?' Her eyes were open now, and as she turned to face him she met his properly for the first time. He had very black eyes that were, right now, simply heaven to look into. 'So you speak ?' Her mind was all scrambled; she could still hear that noise overhead.
'Portuguese,' he said and, as if he was there for her amusementwhich for a moment or two longer he guessed he washe smiled as he offered her a choice. 'Or I can speak French. Or Spanish too, if you prefer '
'English is fine.'
There was no need to talk any more. He could see the colour coming back to her cheeks and saw her tongue run over pinkening lips. 'We're up,' Niklas said, and at the same time the bell pinged and the flight attendants stood. Meg's internal panic was thankfully over, and he watched as she let out a long breath.