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By FERN MICHAELS, MARIE BOSTWICK, LAURA LEVINE, CINDY MYERS
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Kensington Publishing Corporation
All rights reserved.
By the time she arrived in New York City, Claire was beyond exhausted and just a wee bit tipsy. She'd been so nervous on the flight from Los Angeles, she'd had one too many glasses of wine in hopes of calming her nerves. It hadn't helped.
After going through Customs, with a two-hour wait before her flight to Dublin, Claire found a vacant spot at one of the many bars at JFK. Knowing she would regret it, she hoisted herself up on the barstool and, in doing so, managed to get her shoe caught on the footrest at the bar, where she proceeded to lose her four-inch heel. Horrified because she did not have access to another pair of shoes—in her carry-on she'd packed only a book and a travel pillow for her trip—Claire crammed her foot in the shoe where the spiked heel dangled from the sole.
"What'll you have?" A twentysomething good-looking bartender asked her as she adjusted herself on the barstool.
"Uh, something that'll wake me up."
"No, I meant something that will make me sleepy."
"Long flight?" the bartender asked.
"Yep," Claire said somewhat woozily, then hiccupped. "Just came from LA, and now I'm headed to Ireland."
"I'll fix you up then. I know the perfect drink. Once you're on board, I promise you will sleep like a baby."
"I'll have that then," Claire said, not really caring what it was as long as it knocked her out. She did not like to fly. Period. It was not natural. If humans were meant to fly, they would have been born with wings.
Two minutes later, he placed a cocktail napkin in front of her, topping it off with a tall glass filled with amber liquid and a slice of lemon. Claire immediately took a sip. "This is good. Tastes like sweet tea." She downed the glass easily, then moved it aside, motioning to the bartender for another. He laughed, shook his head, and again placed another one of the tasty drinks in front of her. "This is really good," she said after she took another drink.
"It will help you sleep," the bartender commented as he wiped the bar down. "Just don't drink too many, or I can't promise you'll find your seat on the plane."
Claire finished the last of her drink, suddenly feeling beyond woozy. Her words came out fuzzy and slurred when she spoke. "How much ya need?" she asked as she fumbled inside her purse for her wallet.
"Forty bucks should cover you," he said.
Even in her state of inebriation, she thought the price outrageous. She smacked a fifty-dollar bill beside her empty glasses, then said, "Merry Christmas," but to her it sounded more like Meruhkissmus.
"Happy Holidays," the bartender called over his shoulder as he made his way over to his next customer.
"Yeah, sure," Claire mumbled as she exited the bar. Quickly scanning her surroundings for the ladies' room, she spotted it across from a Best Buy mini kiosk.
Limping through the throngs of travelers, Claire joined a long line of women waiting for their chance in the ladies' room. Too-bright fluorescent lighting along with her consumption of too much alcohol, made the room begin to swirl. Leaning against the wall, Claire closed her eyes, praying that the sudden urge to throw up would pass.
An elderly woman tapped her on her shoulder, "Honey, it's your turn."
Claire opened her eyes just in time to see an open stall waiting just for her. She waved at the kindly woman before she skip-hobbled the short distance. Dropping her purse and duffel on the floor, not caring that the germs of the world were probably seeping inside, she dropped to her knees, wrapped both arms around the base of the commode as though she were locked in a passionate embrace, and proceeded to purge herself of the alcohol she'd just downed.
Amid the sounds of running water, the whisper of air hand dryers, the clinking of the metal locks on the stall doors, and a lowered whispered from a harried mom, Claire had a brief moment of lucidity when she heard the same woman whispering harshly to her daughter that the woman in the next stall, her, was a very bad example. Claire gritted her teeth and squeezed her eyes into gatorlike slits as another wave of nausea forced her to lean over the toilet once again. However this time, she neglected to hold her shiny black hair behind her. Not only did she now have vomit in her hair, but the automatic flush chose that moment to do its thing, and giant drops of toilet water splattered her in the face.
Claire came to the conclusion she was more than a bit tipsy: She was drunk, smashed, inebriated, highly intoxicated, whatever. She should know better, she thought, as she grabbed on to the giant plastic container that held an equally giant roll of tissue and struggled to steady herself. "Shit," she muttered when the plastic surrounding the tissue fell off, landing in the toilet. More water splashed her navy skirt. Bits of vomit clinging inside the bowl flew out of the water, creating tiny polka dots on her skirt.
Still woozy from the alcohol, Claire acknowledged that she was still drunk. She hadn't been so drunk since she'd passed the bar exam, and she knew that a killer hangover loomed in her near future. Taking a deep breath, she carefully eased into a standing position, heedful as she tried to balance herself on one four-inch heel, the other heel dangling from its sole, all while carefully stretching her arm to her side so she could retrieve her purse and duffel bag.
Forcing herself to appear normal, Claire managed to unlock the stall door and tumble to the sinks. The sight of herself in the mirror almost made her throw up again. Chunks of something she didn't want to put a word to clung to the ends of her hair. The makeup she'd applied so carefully in California was smeared across her face. Her mascara had run, leaving her with two raccoon eyes. The lipstick that promised to keep her lips plump and full for twelve hours made her look more like a clown. And she had always hated clowns, thought them beyond creepy. She took another quick look in the mirror. If she weren't so pathetic, she would have laughed. Her main concern was getting to her gate. Anything more in the way of hygiene and cosmetic repairs could wait until she was safely aboard the plane. She did rinse out her mouth and rake a shaky hand through her hair. Turning around, she almost fell flat on her face before she remembered her high heel was broken. Catching herself, she stopped and removed both shoes, stuffing them in her canvas bag. Maybe she'd find a pair of slippers in one of the shops.
Taking a deep breath, Claire reunited with the throngs of travelers, ignoring the stares of the few who caught a good look at her appearance and her lack of shoes. Holding her head as high as she could without making herself dizzy, she walked what felt like ten miles before locating Gate 27. Spying one of the usual shops that sold everything from earplugs to blankets, Claire, still a bit woozy, but not nearly as drunk as she had been an hour ago, entered the shop and searched for a slipper, a flip-flop, anything to put on her feet. She perused the mini aisles and saw nothing that remotely resembled footwear of any kind. Seeing that the cashier was watching her every move, Claire took advantage of it. "Do you sell slippers of any kind? Shoes?"
The older man was dark-skinned and extremely attractive. He nodded, then motioned to the wall at the very back of the store. Claire followed his instructions and saw several pairs of children's slippers before locating the footwear for adults. "Oh." She almost said shit again but thought better of it as there were small children in the store. Realizing this was it, all or nothing, she grabbed a pair of Betty Boop slippers in a size seven. At the register, she paid for them, had the gentleman remove the tags, then slipped them on her feet. Warm, she thought with a smile. She hadn't realized how cold her feet were. She'd been too nauseated to pay much attention to anything else.
Slowly, she made her way back to her gate. No sooner had she sat down, preparing to relax for a bit before she boarded yet another long flight, this time across the Atlantic, she was surprised to hear the airline attendant telling those in first class to begin boarding. Taking extra care to appear steady on her feet, Claire slung her duffel over one shoulder while clutching her purse to her chest. She did not like flying. Not one little bit. Even first class.
Donald Flynn had better be on his deathbed.
She plucked her boarding pass from her purse and gave it to the attendant, then stumbled backwards.
"Are you all right, miss?" the attendant asked.
Yes, she was fine, still a bit intoxicated, but she wasn't going to mention this. "Yes, just a bit of jet lag," Claire answered, taking her boarding pass and tucking it in the side pocket of her purse.
Walking down the Jetway, Claire wanted to turn around and catch the next flight back to Los Angeles. As she stepped from the Jetway onto the Boeing 767, she mentally erased the image of sandy beaches and sunshine. She was on her way to Ireland, her ancestral homeland. A trickle of excitement inched down her spine as she located her seat. Her mother and father would've come with her had she invited them. Now, sitting here all alone, she was sorry that she hadn't invited them; but this was a business trip. She wouldn't have had enough time to spend with them. Maybe she would give them a trip to Ireland for their wedding anniversary.
With her thoughts all over the place, Claire's fear of flying took a backseat as she attempted to cram her duffel beneath the seat in front of her. Once that task was accomplished, she removed her compact from her purse. She peeped in the mirror and didn't recognize herself. That bartender surely added ten times the amount of liquor called for in whatever it was she'd drunk. Still feeling slightly woozy, she was ticked at herself for acting so irresponsibly. She rarely had a drink, and now here she was flying to another country, letting a strange guy fix her a drink without even asking what was in it. Feeling the need to right herself some way, she took a packet of wet wipes from her purse and cleaned the smeared makeup from her face. Then she ran another wipe along the length of her hair to remove the horrid smell, along with little chunks of—she didn't even want to go there. Before she changed her mind, she hit the CALL button. Within seconds, a perky blond flight attendant hovered over her. "Ma'am?"
Ma'am? Claire thought, feeling old and dirty beside the perfectly groomed young woman.
"Ma'am? Is there something I can get you before we prepare to take off?"
"Uh, yes. Would it be possible to get a wet cloth and a cup of strong coffee?"
Chalk white teeth smiled down at her. "Absolutely. Would you like cream and sugar?"
"No, black is fine, thanks."
Minutes later, the perky flight attendant delivered a warm cloth along with a steaming cup of coffee. Claire thanked her, placed the coffee on the side table, then ran the warm cloth across her face and neck and the strands of her hair. She practically downed the hot coffee in one gulp and felt a bit better physically. Still slightly nervous, she leaned against the headrest and closed her eyes. She forced her mind to another place—her happy place, she called it. Rainbows, lots of sunshine, and warm, sandy beaches with cool blue water lapping against a creamy shore. She'd found this simple exercise quite useful when she had to fly. If only she hadn't added alcohol to the mix, she might've enjoyed the hours of forced relaxation, but she'd acted impulsively, and now her method wasn't quite as effective.
Claire continued to lean back against the headrest as more passengers made their way down the narrow aisles. Since it was a night flight, she figured all would be quiet, and she would use the time for some much-needed rest. No more had the thought flickered across her mind than she heard an infant's high-pitched cry. She sat up in her seat and turned around. A pretty redheaded woman, probably in her mid-thirties, held the baby next to her chest and bounced the child up and down as she tried to put a bag in the overhead bin with one hand. A flight attendant saw her attempt and finished the task for her. The woman and crying child sat in the aisle seat beside Claire, which meant if she had to get up to go to the restroom during the long flight, she'd have to disturb the mother and child. On an impulse, Claire turned to the woman. "Do you want to trade seats? I wouldn't want to bother you"—she nodded toward the crying infant—"if I have to go to the restroom."
"Aye, that would be helpful," she said in a thick Irish accent. "I like the window seat. I can"—she pronounced can like kin—"lean me head against the window an' have a rest if this little bairn allows me."
Claire grinned. "Boy or girl?" she asked as she removed her duffel from beneath the seat.
"This wee one's a lad, and a mighty hungry one, I might add."
With quick precision, the young woman eased out of her seat, her grip on the baby firm, yet she still continued to bounce him up and down to soothe his now-soft cries. Claire stepped into the aisle while the woman adjusted herself in the window seat.
Relieved, Claire sat down, fastened her seat belt, suddenly glad for the young woman's company. At least she wasn't seated next to some old man who wanted to tell her his entire life history and that of his ancestors. She'd been through that scenario more than once.
"I'm Claire O'Brien," she said.
"I'm Kelly, and this is Patrick, but we've taken to calling him Paddy, an' I think it's gonna stick."
"My brother is named Patrick, though most of his friends call him Eddie."
"Must be the name no one wants to own up ta," Kelly observed as she removed a blue plastic baby bottle from her bag. "This one is hungry, an' I can't put off feedin' him any longer. I wanted to wait till we were airborne, but he's gonna start wailin' again if'n I don't."
Claire adored Kelly's accent and couldn't wait to hear the rest of Ireland's folk speak the brogue she'd wanted to hear for most of her life. She'd mimicked the accent many times, but she never sounded quite the way a true Irishman would.
"Poor little guy," Claire said for lack of anything better. She didn't have children, and though she'd been around her nieces and nephews plenty of times when they were toddlers, not too much as infants. She was as unschooled in the care of an infant as much as little Paddy himself.
"This is his first flight, and my first time flyin' with a babe. My mum tells me their ears hurt, and I should make sure he's feedin' until we reach altitude."
Again, Claire was completely out of her element and didn't know what to say, so she said the first thing that popped into her head as she observed the white liquid in the light blue bottle. "Looks like he'll be finished before we even take off."
"Aye, that's what I was afraid of," Kelly said suddenly, no longer the confident mother she appeared to be.
"I can help," Claire spurted out of the blue.
"You've experience with babes?" Kelly asked, her eyes brightening with hope.
She swallowed, then licked her lips. "Not really, but I can learn."
Kelly laughed, the sound almost magical. "He's just eight weeks. Not sure I'm even qualified to offer suggestions, but I'll manage."
The mere thought of the responsibility of caring for a child instantly sobered her up. She thought of her sister Colleen, and how she must have felt losing Shannon. And Megan, her other sister, had three sons. How did they manage to care for a family and do all the other things required? Claire had spent her entire adult life pursuing her career, climbing up the ladder in hopes of making partner in a prestigious law firm. Now, though she was within a year of achieving that goal at Arleo, Hayes and Ring, she thought it insignificant compared to her sisters' accomplishments. Raising a family wasn't in the cards for her. She'd be up a creek without a paddle if she were Kelly.
"If you need to stretch your legs, or use the restroom, I'll be happy to hold him." Yes, Claire thought, I can do that. She'd held babies before.
Excerpted from Secret Santa by FERN MICHAELS, MARIE BOSTWICK, LAURA LEVINE, CINDY MYERS. Copyright © 2013 Kensington Publishing Corporation. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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