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American Airlines flight number 124 from New Orleans to Washington, D.C., was in trouble. At least it seemed so to Keely Preston, whose cold, damp hands were clasped tightly in her lap as she stared anxiously out the window at the frequent blinding flashes of blue-white lightning.
The first-class cabin provided a more comfortable flight than the passengers in the coach cabin must be experiencing, but then Keely always flew first class for that reason alone.
"Miss Preston." Keely jumped and whipped her head around to face the airline hostess who was bending solicitously over the vacant seat on the aisle to address her confidentially. "Would you like something to drink?"
Keely pushed back a few strands of caramel-colored hair and tried to smile with tight, stiff lips. She wasn't sure she was successful. "No, thank you."
"It might help calm you. I've noticed that you're nervous about the storm. I assure you that everything is fine."
Keely looked down at her clenched hands and smiled in self-derision. "I'm sorry that it shows." She glanced back up at the attendant and smiled with more conviction. "I'm fine. Really."
The young woman smiled her professional smile and offered, "Ring me if you need anything. We should be out of the storm in the next several minutes and will land in Washington in about an hour."
"Thank you," Keely said and made the effort to relax, to sit back against the thick luxury of the first-class seat and block out the ferocity of the storm by closing her eyes.
The man across the aisle admired her display of courage, though he sensed she was terrified. As a matter of fact, he had admired everything about this woman since she had boarded the aircraft a fewminutes after he had. She was in possession of many admirable qualities.
Her hair for instance. It was soft and casually styled. He despised trendy hairstyles copied from punk rock stars or women athletes.The lady across the aisle had hair that swept her shoulders each time she moved her head. It looked well-brushed and clean and he suspected it must smell like flowers.
He wouldn't be a man if he hadn't noticed her tidy, compact figure when she had passed him on his aisle seat to find hers one row in front of and across the aisle from his. She was wearing a green two-piece knit suit. The sweater tapered to a trim waist. The skirt clung to taut hips and widened gradually to flare just below her knees.
She had damn good legs too. He noticed that when she reached overhead to toss her trench coat in the compartment over her seat. That was when he had seen her in profile and noted that the front of her sweater conformed to a ripe, but not overfull, bosom.
To anyone's observant eye he had been engrossed in the stack of papers he had withdrawn from his briefcase soon after takeoff. Actually he had been covertly watching the woman. She had ordered filet mignon for dinner, but had taken exactly three dainty bites of it. One bite of broccoli. No bread. No dessert. She had drunk one-half glass of rosé wine and one cup of coffee slightly creamed.
He had read through several more of the official-looking documents after dinner, then stowed them again in his briefcase. He had been flipping through Time, but still continued to glimpse at the woman at regular intervals over the top of the magazine.Thus, he had seen and heard her exchange with the flight attendant. Now he gave up all pretense of reading and only watched her closely.
At that moment the airplane hit an air pocket and dropped suddenly.To a seasoned flier it was nothing to panic over.The woman across the aisle bolted upright and whirled her head around. Her eyes were wide with fright.
Before the man had thought about it, obeying a subconscious command he didn't stop to analyze, he was across the aisle and in the seat next to hers, holding her hands between the two of his.
"It's all right. Nothing to worry about. Just a little turbulence. No need to panic." Indeed, they seemed to be the only two in the first-class section who had even noted the sudden, and immediately corrected, loss of altitude. The attendants were still in the galley, where the unmistakable clatter of china could be heard.The other passengers, few though they were on this late-night flight, were either asleep or too preoccupied to have noticed that the handsome young man had virtually leaped across the aisle to join the distressed woman.
The warm, strong, masculine hands that gripped hers tightly were so well-groomed that Keely stared at them for a moment before she lifted her surprised eyes to the man's face. It was extremely close to hers but, oddly, not uncomfortably so.
"I'm sorry," she heard herself say. What was she apologizing for? "I'm fine. Truly. It's just " The hoarseness in her throat shocked her. Where were the melodious tones that usually characterized her speaking voice? And why was she stammering like an idiot, which surely this man must believe her to be. Who else acted like such a complete ninny on an airplane but a hysterical, neurotic female? And why didn't she feel inclined to draw her hands away from his?
Instead she stared up into the blackest eyes framed by the blackest brows and feathered by the thickest, blackest lashes she had ever seen. There was a half-inch-long scar on his cheekbone just under his left eye. His nose was slender and finely chiseled. His mouth was full and wide, the lips dangerously close to being sensual. The jaw and chin were definitely stubborn and male, but saved from austerity by a deep dimple in his right cheek near the corner of that intriguing mouth.
"Well, what are friends for?" he asked, smiling that heart-melting, confidence-inspiring smile that had become his trademark and anathema to his enemies.
Hell, who are you kidding? he asked himself. He didn't feel like a friend. The lightning that electrified the atmosphere outside the airplane was nothing compared to the bolt that had struck him right between the eyes and straight in the heart when he had first looked her fully in the face.
Green. Her eyes were green, wide, full of integrity, and sexy as hell. Her complexion wasn't peaches and cream. It wasn't that fair. More like peaches and honey, sort of an apricot that would tan golden in the summer. It was tastefully enhanced with just the right touch of makeup.
The nose was perfect.The mouth God, the mouth! Her lips were soft and glossed with a shiny coral.
She wore small gold loops in her ears. A slender gold chain gilded the base of her throat. She had no rings on the hands he still held. He celebrated that fact.
Her body was trembling slightly and for one insane moment he wished he knew what it was like to have her quivering beneath him in unleashed passion. The thought both thrilled and shamed him. It was obvious she wasn't soliciting for that kind of reaction from a man. The lust originated only in his mind, but it was undeniably there.Yet not base desire alone. He felt a compulsion to cover her. Not with dominance, but with protection.To shield her.To imbue her with his strength. It was a uniquely masculine emotion. And he had never felt it before with any female.
Some of the voracity of his thoughts must have shone in his eyes, for she was tugging gently on her hands. He released them reluctantly. "I'm Dax Devereaux," he said by way of introduction and to cover that self-consciousness that had suddenly sprung between them.
"Yes, you are," she said, then laughed softly, nervously, at her own words. "I mean, I recognize you now. I'm pleased to meet you, Congressman Devereaux. I'm Keely Preston."
His eyes narrowed as he stared at her, his head tilted in concentration."Keely Preston. Keely Preston.Where have I heard that name? Should I know you?"
She smiled. "Only if you drive in New Orleans. I'm the traffic reporter on KDIX radio. I broadcast from the helicopter during rush hours."
He smacked his forehead with an open palm."Of course. Keely Preston! Well, I'm humbled to meet such a celebrity."
She laughed again and he delighted in it. Her laughter had a low, musical sound.The lovely face wasn't tense any longer. "Hardly a celebrity," she demurred.
"But you are!" He leaned forward and whispered conspira-torially "I know people who wouldn't dare drive to work each day without your guidance from above." He cocked his head and lowered black brows over his dark eyes.They stared at her in perplexity. "Forgive me for making such a crass observation, Keely, but if you fly every day why..?" He let the question trail off and she finished it for him.
"Why was I afraid a few minutes ago?" She turned her head to glance out the window again.They had flown through the worst of the storm, though streaks of lightning still lighted up the far horizon."It's silly, I know. It's not the flying. As you say, I do that every day. I think it was the storm that upset me." It was a lame excuse and sounded so even to her own ears. She didn't want to guess how ridiculous it sounded to Dax Devereaux.
Why didn't she just explain to him? Why not tell him that Preston was her professional name, that she had another? Why not tell him why flying sometimes terrified her, that her job in the helicopter every day was part of her self-prescribed therapy to get over her own hang-ups?
Those things were difficult to reconcile to herself, much less verbalize. She knew from experience that it made men single, attractive menuncomfortable when she told them of her circumstances.They didn't quite know how to catalog her. To save herself and Dax Devereaux from such an embarrassing situation, she would stick to the vague answer she had given. He seemed momentarily satisfied with it.
To change the subject away from herself she asked him, "Are you going to be our next senator from Louisiana?"
He chuckled and ducked his head in an almost boyish mannerism. She saw a few strands of silver in his thick dark hair. Beautiful hair.
"Not if my opponents have anything to do about it. What do you think?" he asked her directly.
"I think you stand a very good chance," she answered unreservedly and honestly."Your track record as a congressman is good."
Dax Devereaux had made a name for himself in her native state. He was known as the workman's politician. Often he could be found in jeans and a work shirt talking to fishermen, farmers, or blue-collar factory workers. His critics scoffed at his tactics and accused him of insincerity and flam-boyancy His supporters worshiped him. In any event, he kept the populace aware of his activities. No one in his congressional district was ignorant of their representative's identity.
"You don't think I'm an 'opportunist, constantly stirring up controversy for his own gain'?" he asked, quoting from a recent critical editorial.
She had read the editorial and smiled. "Well, you must admit that it doesn't hurt you to have a name like Devereaux when running for public office in the state of Louisiana."
He grinned back. "Can I help it if one of my great-great-grandfathers was an illustrious French Creole? I don't know if that's a help or a hindrance. Do you know how barbaric they behaved sometimes? Duels.They were a hot-blooded, short-tempered, snobbish bunch. One of my forefathers scandalized the family by marrying an 'American' girl after Jackson's defeat of the British. And a black sheep of the family even collaborated with the Yankees when the Union Army seized New Orleans during the Civil War."
She was laughing now."Okay, okay.You're descended from a family of cutthroats and traitors." She looked at him speculatively"I would think that you'd be a publicist's dream," she remarked candidly.
"Oh, yeah?" he asked and his eyes twinkled at her sudden embarrassment.
She floundered. "What I mean is your names both start with d and end with x. Surely a clever adman would do wonders with that during a campaign. And your youth and and good looks. Sort of a John Kennedy type."
"Ah, but Mr. Kennedy had Mrs. Kennedy. I don't have an attractive wife as an asset." Keely knew that. Everyone did. His bachelorhood was a point his opponents played havoc with. Looking the way he did didn't help. Some considered a good-looking bachelor a threat and downright deadly when it came to effective politics.
She was staring into her lap. His knee was so close to hers she could feel the fabric of his pant leg against her shin. She didn't move away. Instead she raised her eyes to his and found him studying her closely. "I don't even have a good prospect for a wife," he said.
She swallowed. "Don't you?" The question was barely above a shaky explosion of breath.
That glorious sexual suppression. It was so exploited in movies, songs, and books. But it could be quite painful when one actually exercised it. The tumult that built in Keely's breast as she stared at Dax would not be squelched. For so many years it had been refused recognition, refused life. Now that it had a chance, it bloomed into enormous proportions, expanding her chest, filling her whole body, until her breathing was stifled. But before she died from that sweet suffocation, she was granted a reprieve.
The flight attendant stopped beside Dax's seat and said, "I see that the two of you have got acquainted. Can I bring you anything, Miss Preston? Congressman Devereaux?"
Dax hadn't taken his eyes off Keely and now he asked quietly, "Will you join me in a brandy?"
She tried to speak, couldn't, so only nodded mutely. He turned to the stewardess and said,"Two brandies." Keely took that time to restore herself. She ran her tongue over her lips, blinked several times, drew three deep breaths, and smoothed moist palms over her skirt. His leg was where it had been. If anything, closer. How tall was he? She hadn't had time to notice when he had suddenly appeared beside her, grasping her hands.
She looked up at him. His face was serious."If I run for the Senate, will you vote for me?" They laughed then and the tension was dispelled.They were served their brandies and she took a tentative sip. She didn't like it, but she didn't let him know that.
"Tell me about your work. It must be fun and exciting," he said companionably.
"It's much more glamorous from the outside than from within, I assure you. But I enjoy it."
"Do you ever get tired of being stormed for autographs by an adoring public?"
"Remember I'm on radio. People don't often recognize my face. But if I make a public appearance for the radio station, I enjoy a certain amount of VIP treatment."
"Maybe you should go into the more visible medium."
"Television? No, thank you!" she said with emphasis."I'll leave the cameras to my friend Nicole."
"Nicole ? What's her name?"
"Nicole Castleman. She anchors the six-o'clock news on the television station that shares the building with my radio station."