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The only benefit of traveling a gazillion miles a year is the braided cord separating those with preferred airline status from the rest of the passengers.
The day she met him, Tessa was second in the priority lane for the Boeing 777 bound for La Guardia from Boston.
He was third.
After boarding the plane, Tessa found her place — 7C — then hopped onto the aisle seat to place her bags in the storage space above. She quickly tucked her purse far into the corner to prevent it from being smashed by the larger carry-ons, completely unaware that she was holding up the line.
"I think this is me," said a man as he pointed his boarding pass toward her heavy black boots squashing the edge of his seat. It took her a few seconds to decipher his words. He had a heavy accent, certainly foreign. British, she decided. He had a distinct lilt to his tone.
"Oh! I am so sorry!" Tessa exclaimed, hopping off and backing into another passenger who had tried to squeeze past them. She shrugged and smiled in embarrassment before brushing her hand over his chair. She scampered across the middle seat and settled in next to the window. Before she could turn back to address the man, an elderly gentleman sat beside her with a glass of orange juice in one hand and a torn-up paperback in the other. Tessa couldn't help her curiosity; she wanted a better look at the man who sat by the aisle. He didn't fit the mold of the typical businessmen who normally took this midday flight. If only her view wasn't blocked by the man who separated them.
Without turning her head, she tried her best to assess him. Long, lean legs, slim jeans and those vintage Converse sneakers. Through the corner of her eye, she strained to see his face. He had just put on some reading glasses. She noted his sandy brown hair, side swept and thicker on top, dense eyebrows and prominent nose. It suited his face perfectly, that well- appointed nose. It was also the only thing she could see past the older man, who had now removed his shoes.
When the guy in 7A stood up to retrieve something from the overhead compartment, Tessa noticed some serious abs hiding under his shirt. "One, two, three, four," she counted in her head, disappointed when its folded edges fell back into place. She was sure there were six of them. The way he leaned back in his seat, his lean, lanky limbs, his form, his glasses, the way his fingers leafed through a pile of papers — he looked like an intellectual dressed as a cool dude.
Tessa was a writer. A keen observer of people, events and places. She was obsessed with stories, lived and breathed with a passionate imagination, always finding love in the daily trivialities of life. The characters in her books were a combination of the stories she made up about the people she met in real life, muddled with memories that turned themselves into fiction. Her inspirations started out as feelings and emotions. In time, they would blossom into words that seized control of her every waking moment.
She began to write on the back of her boarding pass.
Hot guy on the aisle seat meets girl on plane to where? Leaves key chain on seat. He searches for her everywhere. Write about that journey. Elderly gentleman. Mentor? Cupid?
God, he's cute.
The whirlwind of book signings and private fan functions left her constantly exhausted. This was all new to her, and the past year had been too hectic. New York was the last stop in this year's spring tour. Smile, laugh, get your A-game on. There was nothing more exhausting than sitting at a table, four hours a day, for three days straight. But the satisfaction of seeing her words come to life in the hearts and minds of complete strangers kept her going. There was nothing better than meeting new people from all walks of life and from every place in the world. People who shared your feelings and understood your messages, who ceased becoming strangers and turned into friends.
"You say you hate it, but you do it every single time," her best friend had said. Riley with the flowing black hair, shiny olive skin and the perfect collection of make-up. The same Riley who had the heart of Tessa's older brother Jacob wrapped around her finger.
"I know," Tessa had said while sitting on a bench outside the Soul Cycle on Wacker Drive just two weeks before. "My agent insists I do at least four this year. It's all so unexpected. I don't think we know how to deal with it yet."
"What? Hitting the bestseller list?"
Tessa had nodded. "I think she's in shock and wants to make sure I take full advantage of it. It wouldn't be so bad if I didn't have to sit through these things by myself. You know, it gets lonely sometimes, there's no one to share these interesting times with," Tessa hinted, winking.
"Hmm." Riley had cocked her head and placed her finger on her lips. "New York does sound inviting. I'll tell you what. I'll assist you at the signing if you let us extend for two more days to attend Fashion Week! I'm sure Gaby will be able to score us some tickets to the McQueen show."
And that's how this trip came to be.
The rest of the flight was uneventful. The older man coughed incessantly, and Tessa faced away. Soon, she fell into a deep sleep, periodically woken up by the bobbing of her head from side to side, threatening to fall into the old man's lap.
Tessa jolted upright when the plane skidded to a stop two hours later. She reached for her phone to turn it on. It began vibrating with message after message. Riley would be coming in from Los Angeles about two hours after her flight. Tessa could unpack her stuff at the hotel and walk around Manhattan, indulge in some street food and kill some time before Riley arrived. She was so busy checking her messages, oblivious to the loud ding and the subsequent unbuckling of seatbelts all around her. The young man in 7A shot up like an arrow facing in her direction. And for a brief second, she caught his gaze. He smiled at her, a lopsided kind of smile. Unsure. Maybe even embarrassed.
As the aisle began to fill, Tessa stood, leaned on the headrest and waited for the line to move. All this time, she felt him watching her, the heat of his stare causing her ears to burn. He made small talk with a woman who asked him what he was doing in NY. She overheard the word "convention" but the rest of it got drowned in the melody of his voice. She perked up her ears to listen, but it was soon lost amidst the hum of the other exchanges. She boldly watched as the interesting man unlatched the overhead bin, removed a black leather bag and placed it on his seat. And then to her surprise, he gently handed her bag over.
"Thank you." Tessa smiled as she reached for her burgundy purse.
"You're welcome," he answered. And then he was gone.CHAPTER 2
Simon ran out of the plane, confused and mad as hell. He should have made conversation, said something, asked for her number. He didn't even know what she was going to be doing in New York.
Talk about playing it cool. He had gone overboard and was kicking himself for it. It's not like he hadn't had plenty of opportunity. Back at O'Hare, he'd noticed her as soon as she got to the gate. Of course, extremely punctual as he was, he'd been sitting for a while, zoned out on Spotify and a copy of Newsweek. He'd heard her first — apologizing to strangers she had just whacked with a long cylindrical object slung across her shoulder. She sat right next to the counter, and there'd been a seat open right across from her. Slowly, he'd found his way to the open seat, smitten by her looks alone. When she hadn't been sipping on coffee or checking her phone, she'd had her nose buried in a book. Simon was on overload, his mind taking him places no one should visit in the middle of the day. She had on a pair of black leggings, an off- the- shoulder sweater and some bad motorcycle boots. Her eyes were shaped like almonds, lifted at the corners in a permanent smile. And her face. Every feature balanced in perfect harmony with one another. Her nose, her lips. That flawless skin.
At first, he thought she was a fashion model, but she didn't have that air about her. She seemed unsure of herself, self-conscious almost. She kept her head down, like she was always deep in thought. And then one ... two ... four ... seven people approached her, and although she was gracious, the way she checked her watch every second gave her discomfort away.
Minutes before boarding was announced, she gathered her things and walked toward a sweet little woman standing in line at the far end of the gate. He watched them interact, saw them walking hand in hand towards the counter. The elderly lady beamed, her steps slow and deliberate as the woman patiently guided her through the throngs of waiting passengers.
Oops. Another casualty. The object hanging from her shoulder just took a man out, hitting him squarely on the forehead.
Simon followed her as she waited to board the plane. He was struck by the way she glided down the jetway, moving as if she were skating on ice. The strides of her tiny feet, the back of her head with the short and clean eye-catching hairstyle only women with perfect faces could carry. He acted on impulse. Maybe he'd been working too much lately, but her beauty bowled him over. Nice to know he wasn't immune to the allure of a pretty girl.
She stopped at row 7 and stepped on his seat, and he thought it was his lucky day.
When she lifted her bag, she took his breath away. He uttered the first thing on his mind and told her she had just planted her boots on his seat. And before he could salvage his blooper, they had a seat mate. An elderly man who couldn't wait to remove his shoes.
When she nodded off, he gave himself permission to look past the old man and admire her as she slept. It was a welcome departure from his other uneventful flights, especially since all this traveling had been getting to him. Same routine no matter what airline, no matter what airport. Same type of people, day in and day out.
She was different. Everything about her looked uncomplicated. Her face epitomized symmetry and refinement. Yet she was totally oblivious to it. She had melancholy in her eyes, subtlety in her movements. The designer purse, the red and green strip on the side of her boots, and the world-renowned stainless-steel watch she wore, showed her success. He couldn't quite figure it out — this tumultuous feeling brewing in his chest, the deep breaths he had to take to calm himself down. What he saw was a myriad of contradictions. Beautiful yet shy, accomplished yet unsure, friendly yet sad. While she slept, her hands remained tucked under her legs, so he couldn't see whether she already belonged to someone else.
Regardless, he knew they had to meet.
Earlier while sitting at the gate, he had wanted to know what she was reading, whose message she was waiting for, and that frothy bubble on her top lip — was that a cappuccino she was drinking?
If someone asked him, that would be how he'd describe the ugly, ungainly hallways of La Guardia, surely one of the dingiest airports in the Western world. But he did appreciate how it took five minutes flat to get from the gate to baggage claim. Normally, he made a quick stop at Auntie Anne's to pick up a pretzel dog, despite his doctor's warnings against consuming processed meats. Instead, he ran down the escalator, two steps at a time.
Baggage claim, if she even had any luggage, would be his last opportunity to meet her. But his brother waved furiously at him from the end of carousel 10.
"Hey bro!" Adrian walked over as Simon stood at the very end of the baggage ramp. "We pretty much landed at the same time."
The two men clasped hands and pulled each other into a loose embrace. Simon was happy to have his brother fly all the way from Essex to support him at the event he was to be speaking at, although he was a little bit distracted at the moment.
"My flight was delayed for two hours!"
"Oh? That's too bad," Simon said. He was too busy scanning the area, waiting for the brown-haired girl to stand in line for her luggage. His suitcase rolled toward him on the conveyor belt. He made no move to pick it up.
In the middle of an approaching group of passengers, he spotted the elderly gentleman who'd sat next to him. He wondered how she was doing with that ridiculous tube swiping every living thing in its way. Damn, he could have offered to help her with it, maybe even shared a cab with her. But who shared cabs these days?
"How long are you staying? I took an extra day to tour the city, you know. Empire State and all."
When Simon turned to respond, there she was, appearing out of nowhere, her shoulders slightly hunched under the weight of the long pole she had slung across her body.
He saw the surprise in Adrian's face when he walked away to slide up next to her.
"Hi," Simon said, resembling a giddy schoolboy but feeling every bit like a man on a quest. He fully realized how idiotic he must look. Why did this have to be a whole production? It's not like he hadn't done this before. It'd been a while, he got that. But this time — the adrenaline rush, the total blackout — felt like nothing he'd ever experienced. The sounds around the normally bustling airport faded — it was the two of them and nothing else.
Surely, he must have pursued Maxine in some sort of way. Well, on second thought, maybe he hadn't. They'd met at a convention, seen each other when they returned home to Boston, and things just fell into place.
He scratched his chin a few times, and then pulled on his ear.
"Hi," she said, her gaze fixed on the moving beltway.
"Have you checked your purse yet?" Simon asked.
Her head snapped toward him and she clutched her purse tight against her body. "Excuse me?" Her brown eyes glinted gold under the fluorescent lights.
She had misunderstood his question. He scrambled for a way to explain so she wouldn't think he was some sort of weird stalker.
She glanced at the conveyor and took a step closer grabbing a mid- sized black Samsonite with a bright-red name tag from the belt and setting it on the ground.
Simon couldn't make the name out for shit.
"Your purse." He tried to put on an American accent, afraid of being misunderstood. A twang here, a twang there. Although careful not to overdo it.
"Sorry, I have to get going," she said as she pulled out the suitcase's handle and transferred the long black pole to her shoulder. She started for the exit but halted after a few steps and turned to him. "Thanks again," she said, this time with a warm smile and a wave.
He saw hope in her smile.
Feeling like he had flopped in front of his brother, Simon tried to mask his blunder by pushing his shoulders way too far back and adopting a swagger. He didn't really know what all that effort was for, this desperate attempt to get her attention. A number, perhaps? A sign of interest? Clearly none of those had materialized.
"What was that about?" Adrian asked.
"A girl I met on the plane. Just wanted to ask if she needed any help with her luggage."
Adrian shot him a look that said he wasn't buying it. "Simon Fremont making a pass at a woman — I never thought I'd live to see this day," he teased. "You finally looked up from those science journals in time to notice a chick?"
Simon pulled his luggage out from underneath Adrian's nose. They were the last ones there, his bag just about to make another round of the airport. He wondered why he was so jittery. It was merely one encounter. A failed one, that is. He had much more important things to think about on this trip.
Like the speech he was going to be giving in a few hours. Or how about the news he just received about his wellbeing.
"Shut up and grab your bag. The hotel shuttle leaves in five minutes."CHAPTER 3
She wondered why the guy at the airport had asked her to check her purse. Not that she was alarmed or anything. After all, she was still trying to get used to the spotlight, strangers coming up to her, giving her letters and gifts. It was a day in the life, sadly. Mostly impersonal, but oddly comforting at times. To know she was making a difference with her words soothed her.
She laughed when a silly thought crossed her mind. Was he trying to get an autograph for his mom or something?
While standing in the taxi line, she was preoccupied with listening to phone messages and forgot all about meeting the stranger.
Attempting to simplify her life, Tessa dated casually. It was a conscious decision, made to ensure she never tied herself down to one place. She often wondered about this, and asked Riley why settling down never appealed to her. Riley always told her it was because love hadn't found her quite yet.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Eight Goodbyes"
Copyright © 2018 Christine Brae.
Excerpted by permission of Vesuvian Books.
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