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Amanda snatched a second to glance up, checking the manufacturer's plate detailing the date and location of construction, on the upper inside of the door frame. Yes, it was real, it had been built in a proper factory and fingers crossed it wouldn't fall out of the sky with her in it. Only once she'd scanned it did she step over and onto the plane. She'd never board without seeing that little rectangle of metal with its punched-in lettering first.
Ritual reassurance achieved, her gaze dropped again, right to the floor, thus avoiding the censorious glares of the air stewards as they grimly gestured to her seat. She knew they were cross, had heard the huffing and puffing from the internal phone system. Taking two steps down the narrow aisle she could feel the equally burning glares of the passengers—having held them up for a full five minutes. Not that long in the grand scheme of things, but seemingly an eternity for plane passengers. She could hear their murmurs of grumbling discontent.
Too bad. She tilted her chin and tried harder to ignore them. This had been an emergency—too many people were counting on her. Thank heavens for her old university buddy Kathryn who'd got her onto the flight last minute and managed to get the ground staff to hold the plane for her as she'd sprinted down the corridor. One second later and that door would have been shut. And if she hadn't got this, the last flight out today, she might not have made it back to Auckland tomorrow in time for the meeting. The risk of fog in the early morning was too great. So she'd made the hour drive from Ashburton to Christchurch in record-breaking time—just keeping within the legal speed limits—and then Kathryn had worked her magic.
Without so much as a glance at the person occupying the window seat next to her aisle one, she pushed her laptop bag into the stowage compartment in front of her feet. She'd get it out again as soon as they had levelled out and get to work. The flight was only a little over an hour but every minute counted. This pitch had to be perfect—the company needed the business to stay afloat and she needed to keep her job. Money mattered—and yes, it was a life and death thing.
She snapped together her safety belt; the plane was already taxiing down the runway and the stewards were quickly covering the mandatory safety basics. She could just about recite the phrases with them—having made this trip too many times in the last two months. It was only then that she noticed that she was seated in the small business class section. She hadn't travelled in this exclusive section of a plane in years.
But as the plane paused at the head of the runway the old anxiety sharpened. She put her head back, closed her eyes and mentally ran through all the probabilities—facts and figures and how it was planes actually stayed up in the air…
It didn't work. The cold sweaty feeling spread.
She'd think about the pitch—that would take her mind off it.
She'd think about Grandfather.
Her heart was beating high in her throat—clogging, choking. And she was sweating more than when she'd been challenging the record for fastest airport dash ever. The last thing she could do now was have a panic attack and cause more disruption to the others on the plane. But her heart pounded harder, louder.
Just think about breathing.
Her lungs jerked, resisting as she took a breath. The engines roared. Her blood competed, trying to beat a louder noise in her ears. She curled her fingers around the edge of the arm rest, clinging on tight. Squeezing her eyes tighter, she concentrated on flexing her muscles. Never mind that she was supposed to start at her toes and tense then relax them, it was all she could do to focus, to stay aware. Now was not the time to faint. Or scream. Or worse.
Breathing. In and out—was how you did it.
'Of course, someone inconsiderate and selfish enough to hold up a plane? It could only be you, Amanda.'
She opened her eyes and turned her head. That voice had cut through the din like a diamond on glass—silencing everything.
Eyes darker than the dead of night stared back at her, framed by thick black lashes. The bridge of his nose had a slight bump from an ancient break, his cheekbones were high, his forehead broad. His lips were full, but there was no hint of a smile. Not for her.
It was a face she knew better than her own, yet she hadn't seen it in years.
She hardly heard the bellow of the engine as the plane kicked off from the ground. Head pressed back against the seat, she couldn't look away from the cool derision in his face.
'It must be at least ten years,' he drawled. 'I'd have thought things might have changed but I guess not.'
It was nine years. Nine years, seven months.
'Some things change, some things don't.' She flicked a glance over his clothes. Jeans. Jared always wore jeans—in school, out of it, when working the ride-on mower, when stacking boxes of files, when cleaning cars…
Under the blazing summer sun and on the coldest winter morning, Jared wore jeans. Maybe he knew how fit he looked in them?
But as she looked at the dark stitching she saw the jeans were different now. His jeans today were designer—not old and faded with dust on the thigh, holes in the knees and fraying ends. She looked up at the black wool jersey—fine merino.
Yes, some things changed.
The plane soared higher and she barely noticed.
Jared James—of all people. The trickle of cold sweat slid down her spine while her heart thudded even more uncomfortably. Well, today had been awful—why should she have thought its last few hours would improve any? She leaned around, looking longingly down the aisle at the rest of the plane. Hoping to spot a spare seat, but all she could see were shoulders and bits of leg protruding all along the edges.
'You'd go to cattle class just to avoid me?' he murmured. 'How touching.'
She twisted further, trying to scan the window seats as well as the aisles. Surely there must be another seat. She couldn't be held responsible for her actions if she had to stay near him. Not tonight.
'You're still only thinking of yourself?' His brows lifted.
'Look how busy that woman is.' He pointed at the steward, efficiently pulling out the trolley to serve refreshments. 'Are you really going to bother her more?'
Amanda felt both embarrassment and rage burn through her like twin rockets heading to Pluto. The twisting mass of resentment Jared inspired in her had been on the backburner for nine years, seven months and now it blasted off with enough power to make that longest journey.
Some things could never be forgotten.
He was wrong—things could and did change. Like her cringe-tastic crush. Two years in the brewing, it had taken only one night for him to destroy it.
Because of him she'd been forced to leave the town she'd spent all her life in. Because of him her relationship with her grandfather had been damaged. Because of him she'd had to live out her last years at school in loneliness and isolation.
And ever since there was never a time when she returned home without thinking of him—seeing his shadow on the land, hearing his heavy-booted tread along the path. Always she had the momentary wondering of where he'd gone, what he'd done—before quickly stamping out the errant thoughts. She didn't want to know; she didn't want to think of him.
Because she had cared. No matter what he thought she really had cared. And he'd left a wrinkle on her heart that she couldn't iron out no matter how hard she tried—no matter how much she told herself she was over him. Such a mistake—a young girl seeing a hero where there was only a heartless youth. His action had resulted in a punishment far more severe than her silliness had warranted.
Why had she been so foolish to have believed herself to be in love with him?
Then she turned back to face him and saw exactly why. No inexperienced sixteen-year-old could possibly resist those darkly handsome looks. His Latin colouring—the olive complexion and almost-black, dangerously gleaming eyes, the thick dark hair that had always had that slightly rough, tousled look. Mystery, rebellion, a hint of scarring—he was too intriguing, too much of an enigma for her not to be curious. Add to that the toned physique honed by hours of hard, heavy work. And then there was the attitude. No man had attitude like Jared James.
She hadn't been immune—no female in town had. But she had been the most foolish.
Amanda Demanda.' His laugh rasped across her like a sand-roughened desert wind.
The old name still had the power to hurt. She'd known about it. Had heard it muttered behind hands when she'd walked past. But no one ever said it to her face, only Jared. And now he'd managed to do it more than once.
His eyes taunted her, mouth teased her. But there was no warm humour. Amanda's chin lifted. There was only one way to handle this. Icy politeness. Manners maketh the woman, right? And manners weren't something Jared tended to bother with—at least not with her. Not that she could really blame him. There'd been a time there when she'd been rottenly ill-mannered towards him—rudely insisting he carry out her orders around the property. It had been an immature girl's method of getting his attention and it hadn't succeeded. At least, not in the way she'd desired. So then she'd tried something far more stupid. Having heard the way the girls talked about him, looked at him—the rumours that he was a dangerous, demanding kind of lover, and one they all wanted. She'd naively thought that if she offered him everything she'd get the kind of attention she craved from him.
So stupid. His reaction had cost her the last of her girlhood and she could never forget or forgive that.
Well, she didn't want his attention now. Now she'd give him nothing but 'nice'—converse a little, do some 'pleasant' catching-up, and then excuse herself into her work. As much as she'd like nothing more than to blast him and then flounce off, she'd made enough of a scene on this flight already; besides, there wasn't another seat available.
She dropped her gaze for a millisecond as she inhaled some calm and then turned fractionally further towards him with the biggest smile she could manage. OK, so it was tiny, but it was there. 'So, Jared, how have you been?'
His eyes narrowed. 'Busy.'
Naturally. Jared had always been busy. Every spare moment outside school he'd been working—making the money that his father had been too drunk to be able to. 'Visiting old friends?'
Incredibly his face closed up even more. 'This was a transit stop for me. It should have just been ten minutes to load the passengers from Christchurch. But it was fifteen because of you. I'm flying up from Queenstown.'
She ignored the dig. 'Been skiing?'
'How nice.' But Jared in jeans with snow-dusted hair wasn't an image she wanted to envisage. He'd be so cool on the mountain. He was too damn cool, too good-looking and sitting too close. And with a skittering pulse she knew that a twenty-five-year-old woman might not be any more immune to his looks than a sixteen-year-old had been.
She tried to inhale deeply, trying to suppress that scary realisation and bring her anger back to the boil. That was enough polite chat for her to get away with. The plane had levelled—
she'd barely noticed the ascent after all, what with the shock of finding her first crush seated beside her. And he'd crushed her all right. All her secret dreams and fantasies. He'd exposed her and changed the course of her life. Not that she'd ever let him know it. Masking her breathlessness, she reached forward and lifted up her laptop bag. Time to retreat behind a screen and extreme concentration, although admittedly that kind of concentration was going to be tricky. Her mind whirled as fragments of memories she'd tried to bury deep long ago started floating up to the forefront of her brain and her blood pounded harder than it had been just prior to take-off.
The humiliation felt as raw, real and recent as ever. She wanted to shrivel up and be washed away like a slug down a drain. Instead she calmly lifted the lid of her laptop, determined to maintain poise and dignity. She wasn't sixteen any more.
She politely accepted the coffee from the air steward, sat back as the woman passed another to Jared.
'What about you, Amanda—you been busy?' he asked after taking a sip from the steaming cup.
Oh, so he'd mastered some rudimentary conversational skills, then, had he? And only just remembered?
'Very.' She, on the other hand, was over it.
There was a sound that might have been a snort or a laugh. She had to look at him—just to make sure he wasn't choking to death or something. She encountered an expression of disbelief so dry she could have been transported to the Sahara.
'Sweetheart, you don't know the meaning of the word.' He spoke casually, sat casually but those eyes of his were still sharp and dark and digging right through her.
'Jared,' she said softly but firmly. 'You don't know me any more.'
He had no idea of how her life had played out. Maybe back then she'd been the spoilt, wilful, foolish girl he so clearly thought she still was. But she'd grown up—finally taken on responsibility.
'I know enough.' His piercing look roved right over her.
He couldn't see much, she reasoned as her temperature began to rise. Not beneath her brown wool coat. Several years old, it was classic enough to still wear and it hid the skirt and shirt that had been the height of fashion several seasons ago.
But despite the thick wool of the coat and the opaque stockings covering her legs, she felt as if Jared's gaze were stripping her close to naked. It was the sexual, animal element of him—she'd recognised it all those years ago as the woman in her had become awakened. But she'd had no idea of the power of it. And while she'd had no hope of resisting it, she'd had no hope of coping with it either.
Yet even now, as she observed the thick lashes almost resting on his cheek as he looked down her arm, her blood raced and she was so tempted to beat that spark into a flame—just to see what would happen. Because the one wild taste she had got back then had become the measure for all.
And then she remembered the aftermath.