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Elisa Henderson had imagined worst-case-scenario headlines even before her plane took off.
Dating Coach Misplaces Client.
Client Goes AWOL from Dating Boot Camp in Caribbean.
God, this was not comforting. She needed to get up. She needed to move. Most of all, she needed to find out whether Celine Carr had made the flight. But she couldn't do that until the Fasten Seat Belt sign blinked off.
She'd gotten Celine's text just as Elisa had arrived at the gate. Thru security. Gotta pee. Board without me. She'd taken her seat in coachalone, since Celine had claimed the last available in first class. Elisa tried to catch a glimpse of Celine, but the aisles were filled with other passengers. By the time Elisa had realized they were about to take off, she still didn't know if Celine was on the plane, and the flight attendants wouldn't let Elisa up. She'd tried to call and text Celine a million times, until a redheaded flight attendant pleaded with Elisa to put the cell phone away before she got them both in trouble.
Now all she could do was cross her fingers and try not to fidget.
Think positive. She's on the plane. She's raring to go.
This is the weekend you teach her that she calls the shots. That she controls her dating destiny.
This is the weekend you make hiring a dating coach the new black.
She took a few deep breaths and focused on positive visualization, which always helped her beat stress: Celine, sitting in first class, smiling and signing autographs, ready to make the best promo video ever. Celine, strolling the white-sand beach at the edge of the aquamarine Caribbean, hair blowing in the breeze, beside a handsome, attentive man. Celine, confident and competent, beaming her appreciation as she said to Elisa, Thank you. You helped me see that I didn't have to keep making the same dating mistakes. The right man was out there. Imaginary Celine tossed her hair, gave her guy a sidelong glance and linked her fingers through his. Thank you for this wonderful man.
Elisa loved the thrill of the match, the click of satisfaction she felt when she fit two people together like puzzle pieces. Plus, she loved running boot camps, intensive one-on-one weekends where she observed her clients in real-world dating situations and taught them new strategies. These weekends were a great chance to get to know a client well, learn her quirks and boost her self-esteem. And who could argue with a weekend in the Caribbean? Elisa was lucky that her sister's friend knew Celine's publicist, Haven, and had been willing to put them in touch. And maybe a little bit lucky, too, that Celine was already undergoing a major image revamp as Haven tried to halt her slide toward celebrity train wreck. It hadn't been too hard to convince Haven that a high-profile boot camp could turn Celine into a dating role model instead of someone whose antics reporters mocked. And if Elisa could make that happen for a rising star like Celine Carr, she'd have the added bonus of building her business's brand in a big way.
On the other hand, if Celine had missed the flight, Elisa would step off this plane into a barrage of firing flashbulbs and mocking voices calling out, "Where is she?"
Rendezvous Dating? Isn't that the business run by Elisa Henderson? The one who lost Celine Carr on the way to St. Barts?
She knocked her head against the back of the seat and closed her eyes.
The seat belt chime sounded. She unbuckled herself and hurried down the aisle.
"Whoa," said a deep voice, very close. She drew up abruptly to avoid a collision, and, for a moment, her mind was overwhelmed by a confusion of hands steadying her, a broad chest blocking her view and the smell of soap.
Then the voice said, "Lise?"
No. No. It wasn't possible. She knew that voice. Way too well. That voice represented a years-old friendship and B-grade movies and Chinese takeout and Scrabble games and that bar they'd gone to so often, the Aquarium
The eerie light of that bar, a blue-tinged drunken haze, the stumbling walk home, her couch, his fingers in her hair, the taste of a mouth she 'd longed for so badly she hadn't admitted it to herself, his tongue stroking hers, waking up every nerve ending in her entire body
What the hell was Brett Jordan doing on her flight to the Caribbean?
She lifted her gaze and, unwillingly, took him in.
Dark hair, just long enough to be tousled. Harder-edged and squarer-jawed than he'd been at twenty-five. But cute, tooa vague upturn at the end of his nose, a slight cleft in his chin and the suggestion of dimples. He was the very definition of masculinityand he wasn't much farther from her face than he'd been that night when he'd finally, finally lowered his lips to hers.
Two years hadn't quenched one ounce of the thirst. She could feel it, a sharp want that lit up all the tender parts of her mouth. She could feel it in her teeth, too. She'd nipped his lower lip that night, and he'd made a sound that didn't have a name.
She wanted to close her eyes and shut him outand she wanted him to pick up where he'd left off.
Oh, of all the cosmic slaps across the face. No. Please no. Not him. Not now.
"Hi, Brett." Her voice sounded tight and unfriendly, even to her. Damn it. She'd been shooting for nonchalant, but she'd never been able to keep any part of herself in line when it came to him.
"This is wild!" he said. "What are the chances?"
Way too high, apparently.
"Well, you know," she said, with a shrug. There. That'll show him. He was the one who'd put the brakes on before anyone lost their pants, then messed around with her sister less than two weeks later. She'd never wanted to see him again, especially not on an airplane with no escape route and passengers peering up at them curiously. All this while the fate of her universe hung in the balance.
His grin was casual and disturbingly cute. "Are you going to St. Maarten? Or St. Barts?"
"St. Barts." She stepped to the side, nearly elbowing a seated passenger in the head. That was his cue to step to the other side, and they'd continue on their separate ways. He'd be grateful. No muss, no fuss, just the way he liked it.
But he didn't move from the middle of the aisle. His shoulders filled the gap between the seats so there was nothing for her to look at but the broad expanse of his chest. "Me, too. Catch me up, hot stuff. What's going on with you?"
He was talking to her as if it had been a few weeks since they'd seen one another, not two years. They hadn't just waved goodbye at their last visit and promised to get together soon. Their friendship had actually ended. It was as if he'd never kissed her, as if he'd never gone out with her sister. God, it galled her that he could pretend nothing had happened.
No, what really galled her was that, for him, nothing had happened. She'd been nothing more to him than a best buddy and an error in judgment.
The passengers around them had gone from curious to irritated, shifting in their seats and occasionally glaring.
"Another time, maybe." Like never? "I have to go talk to my client." And once again she feinted to the side, a more aggressive lunge. He'd have to get out of her way.
Instead, he stopped her with a hard hand on her arm. "You can't slip away that easy. What if you go into hiding for another two years? Are you still in New York? I am."
The presence of more than eight million people in the city of New York, where they'd both moved after college, made avoiding just one person easy. But hop a flight to a Caribbean island and blammo! There he was. Now that they'd run into each other once, she bet the island of Manhattan wouldn't be big enough to contain the two of them in isolation. She'd run into him in the grocery store every week now. That was how these things worked.
She was close, too close to him. She could smell him, old familiar scents that brought back half-forgotten longings. How could eau de Pert Plus shampoo and Old Spice cologne have such a profound effect on anyone? And that hand on her arm was like iron, a display of male strength on a scale she hadn't experienced in way too long. He was near enough that she could feel his heat, and longing slipped through her defenses and washed over her in a rush of sensation. She only prayed he couldn't see it on her face.
This was an act, she reminded herselfthose pale green eyes so intent on her, the inviting grin, the banterit was just habit, the way he was with women.
"There are no guarantees in life," she said. Miraculously her words came out cool and light.
He grinned at her. "See, I always liked that stuff you used to say. 'He who laughs last, thinks slowest.' And 'Where there's a will, I want to be in it.'"
He'd had that one crooked tooth on the bottom straightened since she'd seen him last. She missed the quirk of it. No, she didn't. She didn't miss a thing about him or their friendship.
The plane lurched slightly, and she grabbed on to a headrest. She was rewarded with raised eyebrows and a glare from the seat's occupant.
She tried to broadcast an apology, but the aggrieved passenger just turned away.
"We should get out of the aisle," she said. "I have to get to first class."
"You said your client's up there. What kind of client? Are you still working for that matchmaking company?"
"I have my own business now. I'm a dating coach. This is a one-on-one weekend dating boot camp. I watch her in action, give advice and basically play wingmanwingwomanto her."
"So you're still doing it, huh? Making a career out of teaching women not to date me."
That ego! Unreal. Sure she'd harassed him about his wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am version of romance, threatening to tell the women of Carville College, and later the island of Manhattan, that Brett Jordan was not in their best interest. But that didn't mean he'd influenced her job choices
"I'm making a career out of teaching women not to date jerks," she corrected.
"Did you just call me a jerk?" He grinned.
Despite herself, she had to hide a smile. "You hear what you need to hear."
There was a brutal edge to the banter, and yet it felt familiar, very close to the old flirtation. She could miss that, too, if she weren't careful. This was exactly why she'd avoided all contact with him.
She shook her head. "Let's not do this."
"Small talk, catch upthe whole friends thing. It's not a good idea."
The last trace of smile vanished. "I don't understand."
"I know you don't."
Behind Brett, the curtain veiling first class shifted and a vision of adorableness stepped around it, with shiny blond hair, big blue eyes, dimpled cheeks and a clingy purple dress totally unsuitable for plane travel. Celine.
Instantly Elisa felt better. Screw Brett Jordan and his burning gaze. That was then. Celine and Rendezvous Dating were now. "There she is." She made her voice light. "Hallelujah."
He didn't turn to look behind him. He kept his attention fixed on her. "The Facebook site. We'll catch up online. I'll friend you."
She needed to end this conversation now. And she needed to avoid him for the rest of their overlapping time on St. Barts. She prayed he wasn't also on his way to the island's singles resort where she and Celine were headed. Wouldn't that be the cruelest joke. She wanted him far away from her boot camp weekend. Far, far away.
Her heart pounded. It was not in her nature to be cruel, but this was self-preservation, pure and simple. She needed him gone, immediately. "No. No Facebook. No Twitter. No email. No nothing. I'm not interested in being your friend, virtual or otherwise."
An unexpected expression crossed Celine's face, where she stood behind Brett. Confusion. Concern. Celine touched Brett's arm, and he turned toward her, a smile on his face.
Elisa's internal warning system shifted into overdrive.
That wasn't just any smile. That was Brett's patented twenty-four-hour smile.
"Hey," said Brett to Celine. Affectionately.
Celine's face was tipped up toward Brett like a flower receiving the sun. "Wait a sec. You know Elisa?" Elisa could only watch this terrible slowly unfurling mess. With an audience. People had stopped trying to pretend they weren't listening. Elisa could see naked curiosity on a few faces.
Brett frowned. "How do you know Elisa?"
No one spoke for a moment, and Brett's eyes moved from Elisa to Celine and back again.
And then he got it.
"Oh, sweetheart," he said to Celine. "If you were trying to date a guy who isn't a jerk, you missed the mark by a mile."
Celine looked like she'd been punched. She had a sweet heart-shaped face that made her appear younger than her twenty-two years, and her bottom lip trembled. Elisa turned on Brett, years of self-righteous anger reasserting themselves. "Do you have to act like such a jerk?"
In the seat behind Brett an older woman hid a smile, but Elisa felt no sense of triumph.
"Apparently," he said easily. He leaned back against the nearest seat, clearly enjoying himself. "I always was good at it." The occupant of the seat gave Brett a dirty look, but Brett couldn't have seemed more relaxed if he'd put both hands behind his head and kicked off his shoes. It pissed her off, not only because she was sweaty and stressed out, and he was the coolest customer on earth, but also because he looked so freaking good. Why were cocky asshole men so hot? It was just. Not. Fair.
She had to rein it in. Her attraction, her irritation, her temper. This was a disaster on so many levels, she didn't know where to start figuring it out. And their audience was turning against them, passengers starting to gripe audibly to each other. Drama was one thing, open conflict another.
She'd wanted attention. That was the whole point of this outing. But now things were totally out of her control. There was thisthis swerve. She didn't want eyes on her as she untangled these knots. "We'll talk about this after the flight lands," she said, with as much authority as she could summon.
Brett shrugged. "There's nothing to talk about."
Celine watched them, her gaze moving from one to the other, as if the volley of words was visible.
"I'd like to know what's going on." Elisa crossed her arms.
Brett raised his eyebrows. "Ask your client!"
"I thought there might be two sides to the story."
"There's no story." His expression dared her to push him. "Tell you what. I just got up to stretch my legs, but I'm perfectly happy to hang out here in coach. I'll take your seat, Elisa."
Celine opened her mouth once, closed it again, then managed to speak one word. "Brett?" She looked up at him, borderline pleading. Even through the haze of her own anxiety, Elisa's dating coach radar shot to high alert. Desperate! Take it down a notch! She tried to broadcast this with her gaze, but Celine wasn't looking at her. "I'm sorry," Celine whispered to Brett. Actually it was closer to a whimper. "I was going to tell you."
Brett shrugged. "Okay. That's great. I appreciate that. But you'll pardon me if this is just a little too effed up for me. I'm a tagalong on a dating boot camp weekend. What role did you have in mind for me?" He addressed the question to both women. "Fluffer?" He chuckled.
Elisa closed her eyes. It was either that or laugh hysterically.
The red-haired flight attendant stepped out of first class and glared at them. "You can't congregate here."