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Could anybody possibly be that fine? That's what Tiffany Matthews asked herself as she fastened her seat belt, took a deep breath, and clutched a teddy bear that looked as frazzled as she felt. The bear had an excuse — it was twenty-three years old. And so did Tiffany — she was exhausted. Graduating from culinary school and preparing for a month-long overseas internship had taken its toll.
There was yet another draining aspect to consider: Tiffany was terrified of flying. So much so that even after taking the anxiety pill her best friend had given her, she brazenly endured the curious stares of fellow passengers as they watched the naturally attractive, obviously adult woman sit in the airport, enter the jetway, and then board a plane with a raggedy stuffed animal clasped to her chest.
Tiffany didn't care. During a childhood where her mother worked long hours and her grandmother loved but didn't entertain, Tuffy, the teddy bear, had been her constant and sometimes only friend. No matter what happened, Tuffy was there to lend a cushy ear, an eternal smile, and wide, button-eyed support. This stuffed animal was also the first present she remembered her father giving her, when she was five years old. Unfortunately, his gift stayed around longer than Daddy did, a fact that after years of not seeing him still brought Tiffany pain. They were estranged, and while Tiffany would never admit it, having her father's first gift close by always felt like having him near. Tuffy brought comfort — during her childhood of loneliness, her teenaged years of puppy love and superficial heartbreak, her college years of first love and true pain, and now, while pursuing a dream her parents felt was beneath her. As the plane began its ascent into the magnificently blue May sky, and Tiffany squeezed her eyes shut, praying the pill would stave off an attack, she knew she'd take any help she could get to make it through this flight, even that of a furry friend.
It wasn't until the plane leveled off and her heartbeat slowed that she thought of him again — the stranger in first class. Their eyes had met when she passed by him on the way to her seat in coach. Tiffany had assessed him in an instant: fine, classy, rich. And probably married, she concluded, as she finally loosened the death grip she had on Tuffy and laid him on the middle seat next to her. Clearly out of my league. ... Still, she couldn't help but remember how her breath caught when she entered the plane and saw him sitting there, looking like a GQ ad, in the second row, aisle seat. His close-cropped black hair looked soft and touchable, his cushiony lips framed nicely by just the hint of a mustache. But it was his eyes that had caused Tiffany's breath to catch: the deepest brown she'd ever seen, especially set against flawless skin that not only looked the color of maple syrup, but she imagined tasted as sweet. This information was absorbed and processed in the seconds it took the man two people in front of her to put his carry-on in the overhead bin and step aside so the people behind him could continue. The stranger had glanced up at her. Their eyes had held for a moment. Had she imagined his giving her a quick once-over before he resumed reading his magazine?
Tiffany tilted back her seat and placed Tuffy on her lap. Perhaps it was the medication or the lack of sleep the prior night, but Tiffany welcomed what she hoped would be a long slumber that would take her over the Atlantic, all the way up to the landing in Rome. If she was lucky, she thought, she'd wake up with just enough time to pull her seat forward and place her tray table back in its upright and locked position. And if she was sleeping, she wouldn't be thinking about how much she hated flying, and she especially would not be thinking about Mr. First Class. She knew she was kidding herself to think she made any kind of impression as she passed by the sexy stranger. How could she, dressed in jeans, a Baby Phat T-shirt, and clutching a tattered teddy bear? No need to sit here fantasizing. If I'm going to dream ... might as well do it in my sleep!
Dominique Rollins, or Nick as he was known to friends, put down the magazine and picked up his drink. After staring at the same page for over five minutes, he realized he wasn't reading it anyway. For some inexplicable reason, his mind kept wandering to the woman back in coach, the sexy siren who'd passed him clutching a teddy bear as if she were five instead of the twentysomething she looked. His guess was that she was afraid of flying and the toy was some type of childhood relic, like a security blanket. But to carry it openly, in public, holding it as if it were a lifeline? Too bad, because that chick is fine as chilled wine in the summertime. Nick appreciated the stranger's natural beauty, but he liked his women successful and secure. Not that he was looking for women on this trip, he reminded himself. He wanted a carefree few days without any complications. Nick knew all too well that when it came to the words "woman" and "complication," one rarely appeared without the other.
Her eyes ... Nick tilted his seat back and sipped his Manhattan. That was what intrigued him about her. In them was a curious blend of trepidation and intelligence, of anxiety mixed with steely resolve. The combination brought out his chivalrous side. A part of him wanted to walk back to where she was, sit her on his lap, and tell her that everything was going to be all right. His rational side quickly shot down that idea. One, she was a stranger; two, she'd hardly appreciate being treated like a child, clutched teddy bear notwithstanding; and three, Nick wasn't in the market for a woman — friend or otherwise — he reminded himself for the second time in as many minutes. He was grateful for his work and the newest acquisition that had helped to take his mind off Angelica, the woman who'd dashed his dream of their getting married and having a family together ... and broken his heart.
Nick signaled the flight attendant for another drink and reached for his iPod. He didn't want to think about Angelica on this trip. He wanted to enjoy this mini-vacation in Rome, one of his favorite cities, and dine at AnticaPesa, one of his favorite restaurants and the inspiration behind the upscale eatery in his newly acquired boutique hotel.
Thinking about the quaint, thirty-four-room property he and his partners had purchased in Malibu, California, and were transforming into a twenty-first- century masterpiece brought a smile to Nick's face. Following the global economic collapse, the men had outwitted their corporate competition and had gotten an incredible deal on the 1930s Spanish-style building. The group, four successful men with diverse and various corporate and entrepreneurial backgrounds, all agreed that it was the good looks and sexy swagger of Nick and another partner, Bastion Price, that sealed the deal with the sixty- something, hard-as-nails Realtor who'd handled negotiations. This trip was the calm before the storm of Le Sol's grand opening, less than one month away.
Nick pressed the button that reclined his seat to an almost fully horizontal position. He tried to relax. But every time his eyes closed, he saw the short-haired, chocolate brown, doe-eyed beauty who'd passed him hours before, with those hip-hugging jeans and bountiful breasts pressed up against a tight, pale yellow T-shirt. You're flying to Rome for pasta, not pussy, he mentally chastised himself. Even so, his appetite had been awakened, and the dish he wanted to taste wasn't from anybody's kitchen.
Tiffany took a deep breath and tried not to panic. Her purse had been here just a minute ago, in the basket of her luggage cart, right next to her laptop. She mentally retraced her footsteps in her mind, remembering specific moments when she knew she'd had the Coach bag her mother had given her for Christmas. She'd definitely had it as she exited the plane, had fiddled with the strap as she and the handsome stranger shared casual pleasantries when finding themselves separated only by a rope as they snaked through the customs line. She'd looked in her purse, prepared to boldly give the man her phone number, but his turn had come up before she could find paper and pen. She remembered carefully putting her passport back in her purse after they'd stamped it, her mother's words echoing in her head: Treat that passport as if it's the key out of that country, because it is.
"Yes, I had it then," she said to herself as she remembered her purse being the last thing she placed on the luggage cart, after loading on two heavy suitcases, a carry-on, her laptop, and Tuffy. Then she'd rolled out of the baggage claim area in search of ground transportation. That's when a young woman who looked American but spoke with an accent had approached her and asked for the best way to get to the tourist sites in the city center. When Tiffany said she didn't know, the woman had excitedly gone on about it being her first time in Rome and admitting how nervous she was to be there by herself. Tiffany could relate. She was nervous as well. She'd felt a kinship with the foreigner, and at the time had thought the woman's shifting eyes were due to nervousness. Now she knew it was due to something else. That bitch was watching out for an accomplice.
"She took my purse!" Tiffany yelled, before even realizing she was speaking out loud. Several pairs of eyes turned to stare at her, but she was too panicked to feel embarrassment. "Help, those people stole my purse!"
Belatedly, Tiffany decided to give chase, her heavily laden luggage cart careening wildly through Rome's Fiumicino Airport. She steered the clumsy vehicle as if she were back on the streets of LA, doing a drive-by.
"Excuse me," she said to a woman whom she accidentally bumped in the butt, almost knocking her over. "Coming through!" she yelled as an older gentleman decided to stop and tie his shoe. She managed to bring the cart to a halt just before she broadsided him, stopping so quickly that her carry-on toppled off the cart and Tuffy flew forward and hit the man in the head. "My bad," she said to the bewildered man, who began berating her in rapid-fire Italian. "No-a speakie, no-a speakie," she replied as she gathered up her bag and her bear and began again in the direction she thought the woman had gone.
Five minutes later, she gave up the chase. The woman was nowhere in sight and now Tiffany doubted she could even recognize her in a line-up. Was her hair dark blond or brown? Was she wearing a blue top ... or was it purple? The woman was Tiffany's height, five foot three, but Tiffany didn't remember whether she wore jeans or slacks, or a skirt, for that matter. She'd had colosseums, not criminals, on her mind as they'd talked.
"Damn." Tiffany plopped down on her luggage and put her head in her hands. She could feel the beginnings of an anxiety attack coming on and tried to focus on breathing deeply. But the gravity of the situation began to grow in her mind. She was in a foreign country, alone, with no passport, no money, and no idea how she'd gone from triumph to tragedy so quickly. She'd been so proud of herself as she'd stepped off the plane, having made it through her first trans-Atlantic flight without throwing up or peeing on herself — both unfortunate events that had accompanied past panic attacks. Now she was precariously close to achieving a trifecta, because in addition to these two scene-stealers, she felt ready to throw a two-year-old tantrum and assure herself a place in one of Rome's asylums for the insane. Tiffany began to shake with the effort it took to hold herself together. Trying not to hyperventilate — on top of not vomiting, peeing, or sobbing like a fool — was taking its toll.
"Are you all right?"
Tiffany froze at the sound of the voice flowing down to her ears, smooth and sweet ... like maple syrup. Without opening her eyes or raising her head, she knew who it was. Just great. I probably look like a blubbering idiot, and here comes Mr. First Class to see me in all my crazed glory. Tiffany hadn't imagined the handsome stranger as her knight in shining armor, but she had imagined doing things to him at night — before she'd forced herself to stop fantasizing and fallen asleep.
He placed a firm hand on Tiffany's shoulder. "What is the problem here? Can I help?"
Tiffany wiped her eyes, prayed there was no snot coming out of her nose, and stood. She took another deep breath and forced herself to look into the eyes that had melted her meow-meow on the plane. "My purse was stolen." Her voice was soft, barely a whisper. But it was all she could do. The energy that fueled her initial outburst was spent; now if she opened her mouth much wider she'd break out into an ugly cry.
He angrily clenched and unclenched his jaw. "Come with me." His tone was decisive, as were his movements. He placed his single carry-on bag on top of her luggage, took Tiffany's much smaller hand into his large one, and began navigating them through the terminal. Tiffany walked beside him silently, feeling as if the events taking place were surreal. She'd been in Rome less than an hour and already her life was upside down. When they reached the elevator, he quietly reached for the teddy bear in the luggage cart basket and handed it to Tiffany.
"Here, your friend will make you feel a little better."
His gesture was almost her undoing, yet Tiffany took Tuffy and clutched him to her chest. "Thank you," she stuttered. She knew it must seem silly to other people, but once she clasped her dear furry friend, she began to calm down.
The elevator doors opened and the stranger guided the cart and Tiffany inside it. Tiffany snuck a glance at him, and then not being able to resist it, took another, longer look. "Where are we going?"
"To the administrative offices," he replied. "I know someone there who can get us to a higher-up in airport security. We'll be able to get this straightened out without all the hassle. You'll have to fill out a report with the airport, and another with the police if you want this crime reported, which I suggest that you do. I won't ask you what happened. You'll have to repeat the despicable details at least twice as it is." He gave Tiffany's hand a reassuring squeeze. "By the way, I'm Nick Rollins."
His personable manners in the midst of madness brought a smile to Tiffany's heart, if not her face. "Tiffany Matthews."
"Even though I truly wish the circumstances were different, Tiffany Matthews, it is a pleasure to formally meet you."
Just over an hour later, Nick was once again leading Tiffany, this time out of the administrative offices and down to ground transportation. As assuring as it was to have this six-foot-tall mass of obvious authority walking beside her, looking nice and smelling good, something about his take-charge manner made her uncomfortable. For the moment, she was too grateful to complain. If Nick hadn't been there, Tiffany felt she'd still be sitting on her luggage, crying and waiting for God knew who to do Lord knew what.
"Thanks for everything you did back there," Tiffany said as they once again neared the elevator.
"No worries," Nick said comfortably. "I'm just glad I was here to help you. Trans-Atlantic flying can be exhausting. To have your purse stolen after having just landed is plain bad luck."
"I knew better than to turn my back on my cart, even for a second. But that woman, excuse me, that thief, distracted me on purpose, showing me a brochure of some famous fountain ..."
"Trevi, it's the Trevi Fountain."
"It's the trouble fountain in my book, because that's what finding out about it cost me — nothing but trouble."
"On the good side, nothing was taken that can't be replaced, and what's more, your trip is bound to get better from here!"
The next thing Tiffany knew she was in Nick's chauffeured town car, getting whisked to the American embassy for an emergency replacement passport. On the way, Nick provided his satellite phone so that she could make calls to replace her traveler's checks, cancel her credit cards, and turn off her cell phone — all the while thanking her mother for bugging her until Tiffany had promised to write all of her credit card, passport, and related telephone numbers on a separate piece of paper and place it in her carry-on luggage. While she placed all of these calls, Nick was a calming presence beside her, handling his own items of business on the car phone. When she ended her call, he was still on his, a business call of some sort, she deduced. She busied herself looking out the window, taking in this place that looked so different from the streets of LA. They passed several stately-looking buildings adorned with statues and accented with fountains.
Excerpted from "What Love Tastes Like"
Copyright © 2010 Zuri Day.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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