Lucy Granger adjusted her wristwatch to local time as the nose of the plane touched down at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. With steady precision, she carefully spun the thin gold hands forward through the tick marks until they matched the numbers displayed on the screen of her iPhone 6S. She’d jumped an hour ahead flying west. This early in September it was barely sunset back home in Boulder, but the view from her First Class window was the dark purple of twilight at 7:34 p.m. in Central Time Zone. Lucy clicked the wheel of her watch into place, setting the hands on the new time. The change meant little to her. Besides, it’d be damn near eleven o’clock before she finally reached her hotel and tucked in for the night. Daylight would be back before she knew it.
It’s like living life in fast forward, Lucy thought, feeling the aircraft slow as it taxied to the jetway.
Normally Lucy preferred direct flights when she traveled, but today, landing in Chicago was only half the trip. Her second leg boarded in just under an hour. Still, with that much space between flights she had more than enough time to maneuver through the throngs of fellow fliers, grab a quick bite of dinner to go, and navigate across terminals to her connecting gate. If she traded the time sink of the hot food lines and went with a large coffee and bran muffin from any number of quick-stop coffee shops, she’d still have plenty of time leftover to answer a few emails and catch up on voicemail before boarding her inbound flight to Madison.
Coffee for dinner wasn’t really a true compromise. Lucy never dined out at airport restaurants. The time savings was just her way of adding a little bit of extra shine into her schedule, like she’d done herself a favor and shaved off some unpleasant task. Still, a little bit of instant gratification went a long way when her days were measured in transit times in cabs, trains, and planes, or hotels, conference rooms, and convention centers. At least traveling gave Lucy a chance to clear her mind and think. It’s not like it required much brainpower anymore.
With as much time as she’d spent hopscotching between cities in the years since she’d finished grad school, Lucy had become almost as proficient a travel agent as a millennial executive. It had paid off. Her grassroots tech start-up had blossomed into a thriving industry player, and life was good. The travel wasn’t bad either, even if she did like to complain about it. It gave her an excuse to see the world … and stay as far away from her hometown as possible. At this point, Lucy knew most of the domestic hub airports—and a European one, thanks to an over-zealous customs agent in Munich—as well as she knew her own closet. Getting from A to B in her itinerary, wherever in the world those two points happened to be, was more or less an act she could accomplish on autopilot. Being a Global Entry member and having priority frequent flier status on the top airlines had its perks, too. Today she had zipped through Denver security in three minutes flat, and she and her carry-on had been upgraded to First Class. Five seconds after touch down, Lucy was ready to spring out of her seat and off of the aircraft the moment the doors opened. That kind of timesaving was quantifiable: it would buy her an extra ten minutes that she would otherwise have written off to deplaning. Enough for a latte instead of a coffee, and that was something worth mentioning. Airport drip was not anyone’s favorite.
Lucy mentally calculated her route as she triple checked her watch’s time against her phone’s. They’d landed at B38, the ass end of Terminal 1 and a hefty hike over to her connection at C30. The women’s room would be two gates—three minutes—ahead on the right. Four minutes there to brush out her wavy dirty blonde hair, freshen her face, and smooth the wrinkles of her maxi dress. Then it was approximately a five-minute walk to the human conveyer belt where it would take another fifteen minutes of speed walking to deliver her to Concourse C. A quick glance at the on-screen departures monitor to verify her gate and she’d be sitting in the best available chair by the priority boarding line in thirty minutes, easy. Thirty-five if she decided to grab that latte.
She smiled to herself. Perfect.
The plane came to a stop at the jetway. Using the pointed toe of her ballerina flat as a hook, Lucy pulled her overnight tote bag, which doubled as a laptop case, from beneath the bulkhead stowaway area in front of her seat. She tucked her iPhone securely in its back pocket. Then she unhinged the buckle of her seatbelt and, out of habit, kissed the crystal face of her watch for good luck. It was a silly ritual, but the vintage gold and stainless steel Rolex belonged to her grandmother. Had belonged.
Taking a deep breath, Lucy pushed the thought out of her mind. Her grandmother’s death was still too fresh to think about in public without tearing up, and she had to keep her mascara intact. It just wasn’t okay for confident businesswomen of any age to break down in tears in public, especially those in their early thirties, no matter what Sheryl Sandberg wrote in Lean In. It was all about confidence, and tears were outlawed.
Besides, Lucy needed the luck. She hated Chicago, and for two good reasons. For one, the sprawling airport had some of the shittiest inter-terminal transportation she’d ever seen. And two, nine times out of ten her connections were delayed by the mischief of the gremlins who loved to tinker around with O’Hare traffic control. Or, as had happened more than once, she’d huff and puff across concourses to arrive at one gate, only to discover her flight had been rerouted back over the hills and through the woods from the concourse whence she’d come. It was such a past experience in O’Hare that had prompted her to downgrade her Jimmy Choo pumps to Nine West flats on airport days—and affecting a girl’s choice of footwear was just cruel.
Why am I taking a connecting flight instead of flying directly out of Denver and into Madison anyway? Lucy wondered. She was sure she’d clicked on the nonstop flight option but when she printed her itinerary it said otherwise. It must have been a momentary lapse of good judgment, or—more likely—this was probably procrastination biting her in the ass for taking too long to arrange the whole damn trip. Either that or she’d been booking travel while half-asleep again. One of these days she’d hire someone to help her out with that kind of thing—it could be kind of cool to have an assistant.
Nothing good could come of a connecting flight at O’Hare, but she was stuck with it now, and may as well keep her fingers crossed for an uneventful second leg. With any luck at all she’d be on time into the sleepy little Madison airport soon enough.
Lucy rolled her eyes at the big television screen hanging over the United Airlines counter at C30. She’d made record time across concourses, having sidestepped the coffee-muffin situation entirely and grabbed a bottle of water and an energy bar from Hudson News instead. Apparently, it was all for naught. Her flight into Madison was going to be at least an hour delayed. Go figure. She should have known to expect as much—she had known in fact, but had chosen to be unusually optimistic. Her new departure time was 9:13 p.m., putting her into Madison—assuming no further hiccups—sometime around 10:30 at night, with a midnight arrival at the local Holiday Inn.
Well, isn’t that lovely.
With more time to spare than she’d originally anticipated, Lucy reassessed her situation. There were much nicer places to be stuck in O’Hare waiting for a flight than at the gate. Briefly, Lucy considered walking halfway back across the concourse to the United Club. She made a quick mental pros and cons list to evaluate her choices. Pros: free Wi-Fi, decent coffee and free pastries, comfortable chairs, and semi-quiet. Cons: ten to fifteen minutes of lugging around her already too-heavy bag, the constant need to check the monitors for updates on her flight, and … well …
Lucy surveyed the scene around her. With its troupe of frazzled passengers squished into a small cluster of chairs that probably hadn’t seen a cleaning since the mid-50s, there wasn’t much to miss about the waiting area at the gate.
To the Club it was.
Lucy took one last, verifying look toward the monitor when her eyes stopped on the bowed head of a gorgeous stranger sitting not ten feet away from where she was standing. She allowed herself to stare for the space of a few heartbeats. Either she’d completely missed him before, or some airport fairy godmother had just poofed him here by magic. Free coffee and Wi-Fi was one thing, but if she hoofed it to the Club she’d have to give up such a nice view—and that kind of sex appeal didn’t wander along often through late-night airports. Not that Lucy was interested in adding a man to her busy schedule, but she did enjoy window-shopping. Most of the men in the Club at this hour were likely to be the stodgy, older types who had the tendency to snore loudly in the plush captain’s chairs, heads back and mouths open. If she were going to be stuck in O’Hare, then she may as well have a nice view to occupy her time.
The balance of the scales tipped in favor of staying, and Lucy eyed the stranger as she dropped into the nearest chair. She pretended to busy herself by tapping away on the screen of her phone, opening and closing apps at random. To hell with email.
Evaluating him as discreetly as she could manage, Lucy decided immediately that the stranger in question looked like some kind of old timey country singer—a young Randy Travis perhaps, or the more modern Josh Turner. Like his country music star twins, this guy had that same down-home, wholesome vibe that screamed late night drives along dirt roads with the windows down, stars up. He was lean and broad shouldered with a thick shock of coffee-colored brown hair swept backward as if he’d gotten styling tips from Clark Kent, and he wore his chiseled jaw swathed in a five o’clock shadow that somehow made him appear younger than he probably was. Adding that into her calculation, Lucy’s rough mental math put him in his early thirties, maybe thirty-five, max. He was simply but tastefully dressed in dark denim jeans and a scallion green North Face fleece jacket, which was left unzipped over a plain cotton T-shirt that lapped over the top of a wide leather belt. All together, he basically looked like he’d wandered off the set of some outdoorsy magazine shoot. He sat alone with a passive, almost sullen expression on his face, idly thumbing through a crumpled copy of The Chicago Tribune that had been left behind by some traveler on a previous flight. Bose headphones covered his ears, and his head bobbed gently along to whatever he was listening to. From the way his long body was folded into the small chair it was obvious that he was generously tall, and if she were a betting girl—which she was—Lucy would wager that he was easily a handful of inches over six feet tall. Her money was on 6’ 5”.
Well, hello, Tall, Dark, and Handsome.
Letting her imagination wander, Lucy assigned a measure of personality to the man in her sights, starting with his voice. She imagined he had one to match his famous doppelgangers—as thick as honey and warm enough that the sound alone could melt frozen butter. There was nothing quite like a man with a voice like that. Just the thought of those rich, purring voices made Lucy squirm in her chair. She pulled her own ear buds out of her bag, slid the connector into her phone, and shuffled through the playlists in her iTunes. She wasn’t normally a country music fan, but her grandmother had been, and Lucy ransacked her Nana’s CD library when she built the playlist for her wake. Lucy still had the soundtrack she’d put together on her iTunes. Sometimes when she couldn’t sleep she’d listen to it and it made her feel just a little bit better, a little less alone. A little more like she still had a home to go back to.
Lucy smiled as Randy Travis’ deep voice began to murmur against her ears.
She had almost slipped into the bliss of old family memories when the handsome stranger’s head looked up toward the departures monitor. Lucy’s heart gave a little blip: this was a telltale sign that he was also headed to Madison. It was slim odds at best, but maybe he’d be her seat partner on the plane. That would definitely give this long trip a happy ending. Maybe she’d even chat with him, an activity strictly against her “don’t speak to strangers in airports” policy. She was still daydreaming when his eyes moved from the monitor back down to his paper, catching hers briefly but pointedly on their way down.
Lucy’s breath caught in her throat and she was grateful she was sitting or she might have swooned stupidly. He had the most beautiful baby blues she’d ever seen. She was a sucker for men with blue eyes of any shade, and this guy had eyes that looked like a summer morning in the prairie: clear and bright, and intensified against the backdrop of tanned skin and dark hair.
The desire to moan overtook her, but she swallowed it away.
Lucy tried to move her eyes away from his as ambivalently as possible. Fortunately, he was too far away for her to get any hint of the cologne he might be wearing, because he looked like the kind of guy who took cologne seriously. He’d probably smell like some kind of old south—all fresh cotton, sunshine, and musky pine. Meanwhile, Randy whispered sweet nothings in her ear about forever and ever, forever and ever, amen.
Well, amen to that was right. Lucy cleared her throat and pushed the ghost of summery smells out of her nose.
As much as she tried to hide it behind her polished exterior and a voice kept carefully free of any telltale twang, Lucy had been born and raised in Southeast Texas, right where it bumped up against the Cajun territory of Southwest Louisiana. She knew just how dangerous those Deep South cowboy types could be. No, not just dangerous—they were nothing but trouble. She’d met her ex-fiancé—emphasis on the ex—when she was an undergrad still trying to decide between majoring in business or law. He’d been an engineering student from Alabama, and that three-year relationship plus two-year engagement had ended in one hell of an unholy disaster. Now, when most of her girlfriends were newlyweds and some even new mothers, the sting of that failed romance still haunted Lucy. It had left her so broken she’d felt like a widow.
Luckily, there was a silver lining. One that she wore like battle armor against her mother, who continuously tried to goad her into finding a suitable husband and settling down. The demands of the start-up world were intense. With her professional life so demanding she didn’t have time for a relationship; getting married and boring into domesticity were so far away in her five-year plan that they were little more than blips of abstract “long-term goals.” Marrying Brant Williams would have been a monumental step in the wrong direction, especially since his modus operandi from the get-go had been so totally contrary to hers. He’d wanted to launch a long-term career with a company back home in Alabama, buy a house, and get on the way to rounding out the family Christmas card photo with 2.5 kids and a picket fence. The proposition sounded distinctly nauseating to Lucy.
Now that she thought of it, that bastard Brant had spectacular blue eyes, too, and was tall and dark-haired to boot. In fact, during a recent wine-fueled, late-night Facebook stalking binge, Lucy hunted down his profile and noticed that in the years since she’d seen him his black hair had become flecked with little slivers of silver. The jerk that would have been hers was becoming a silver fox, damn him. Even after all the crap he put her through in the end, he still had a way of making her weak in the knees. It made her hate him just a little bit more.
She really did have a type: tall, dark, and handsome … and inevitably incompatible. No wonder she’d been seeing almost exclusively blond-haired men lately. Well, maybe “seeing” wasn’t a fair assessment of her dating life these days. Her most recent relationship, which was only a relationship in the most Biblical sense of the word, lasted barely over three months. Worse, it only made it that long because neither of them put too much effort into seeing each other save for time scheduled on weekends, and the effort they’d have to go through to tactfully end their relationship wasn’t worth it the fuss. Even when they did spend time together, half of it was wading through a spectacular English-French language barrier that Lucy acknowledged was probably a scapegoat for keeping things purely superficial. The other half of the time they’d simply end up in bed together, because if that saucy Frenchman was one thing it was seductive as hell. Lucy was at a distinct disadvantage between the accent, the wine, and the hours he was okay with spending not talking and giving his full attention to her body instead.
Damn the French.
Eventually, between her travel schedule and Henri’s demanding work in the physics lab at CU Boulder, it got to be so much of a hassle that they downgraded their status from “weekend sleepover buddies” to “on-call event companion.” Last time they spoke, Henri spontaneously proposed marriage, which was actually a relatively quixotic moment … until he further explained that his visa was almost up and marriage would be a convenient way for him to avoid returning to France. Oh, and they were already “intimate” with each other. Lucy rolled her eyes at the memory. The romance!
Damn the French indeed.
Half an hour later the distinctive sound of a newspaper snapping shut hurled Lucy’s wandering thoughts back into the drum of the airport gate. Her musings about her troubles with men pulled her so far away from the dangerously handsome stranger that she completely forgot to daydream about his summery blue eyes. When she glanced up, Lucy was surprised to find that her eye candy was on his feet, and by the way he towered over everyone else in the room it would seem she’d nailed that 6’ 5” thing. He’d slung a bulging backpack onto his shoulder and even with the straps as loose as they could go the bag still only hit the middle of his back.
He was tall and lithe, like some sweet pine tree that was just asking to be climbed. Unfortunately, he was also turned away from the boarding door. From the looks of things he was making ready to head off to somewhere other than the plane. Well, that couldn’t be a good sign. She glanced from him—letting her eyes linger too long on the way his T-shirt clung against the unmistakable ripples of a chiseled stomach—to the television screen, but not before he caught looking. His mouth curled upward into a smirk, and Lucy whisked her eyes to the monitors before the blush had time to crawl up her cheeks.
Whatever flirtatious reaction her body had been planning was stopped dead. Lucy scrunched her nose at what she saw. It wasn’t time to board. The flight was now pushed back another hour. It would be close to 10 p.m. before she ever made it onboard the aircraft now, much less arrived at her hotel.
“Mother of dragons,” Lucy cursed under her breath. She’d been trying to curb her swearing, and had taken to finding ways to substitute some of the most offensive of curse words. It didn’t quite have the oomph that she wanted, but it took the edge off. Of course, Daenerys Targaryen—the silver-haired dragon queen of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels—would have just mounted one of her winged children and taken to the skies herself.
When Lucy turned back, the handsome stranger had disappeared. Through the crowds shuffling over the concourse walkways, Lucy could barely see the crown of his coffee-colored hair rising above the heads of the other passengers.
Damn, he was tall.
Well, thought Lucy, thrusting her ear buds back into her bag and zipping it closed, no sense in sitting here. The allure of camping out at the gate vanished. There was nothing here worth staying for, and she might as well face her fate and set up camp in the Club. Suddenly, O’Hare airport seemed even more bleak than usual.
Lucy had lost enough time to daydreaming. Time to put things back in fast forward.
Lucy thought she’d head to the Club after all, but she didn’t. The image of portly businessmen, slack jawed and snoring loudly in their chairs, put a distinctly unappetizing taste in her mouth that overpowered any desire for the free stale scone that, if she were lucky, she might find. Besides, it was a long walk up the concourse. She figured she could fare better out in the general populous when—for the most part—things were far too loud for anyone to take a proper siesta.
Unfortunately, by the looks of things, the concourse wasn’t going to be much better. The terminals at the Chicago airport were always crowded, but the sheer number of extra bodies flagged today as a higher headcount than normal. Worse, the level of irritation in the air was so thick Lucy could almost taste it, and it tasted like feet. More outbound flights than just hers must have been delayed, possibly even cancelled. There was nothing worse than a horde of really grumpy, tired people who should have been somewhere else by now.
Dropping her bag on the floor, Lucy eyed the nearest departures monitor. Sure enough, there wasn’t a green “on-time” label on the entire screen.
She groaned. Typical O’Hare. You’d think that such a massive hub would have a handle on how to competently manage flight patterns, but clearly not. Well, at least she had plenty of time to finish writing her presentation now. Glass half full, she chanted to herself. Her friends always said she was too pessimistic, but sometimes it was hard as hell to stay optimistic. She preferred to think of herself as a realist. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade—and then add whiskey, just to be sure it goes down smoothly. Speaking of whiskey … Lucy looked around for the nearest place to get a drink.
Just her luck, it seemed like every seat in every restaurant, pub, and coffee shop had been taken. Those who hadn’t found a chair were clogging up the available browsing space in the few remaining bookstores and junk shops. Most of those left roaming the halls, like her, had commandeered vacant wall outlets and were charging their electronic devices. A few migrants were using their luggage as pillows against the far walls overlooking the landing strip. Even open floor space had been picked over. The place looked like some kind of bizarre refugee camp.
The only available spot she could find to hole up for the next hour was one of two empty barstools at an airport pub. Tucked between a bookstore and a pastry shop, the place looked like it was trying really hard to shake off the not-your-typical-airport-bar dullness. With its neon lights and plastic service ware, it wasn’t quite pulling it off. It wasn’t her top pick, but it would do. A glass of chardonnay might be good for her nerves anyway.
Lucy shoved her travel bag between her ankles and climbed up onto the farthest of the two barstools, trying to put as much distance between herself and the bustle of walkers in the corridor as she could. Being short had its perks, but mounting high-backed barstools was not one of them. And, as much as she tried, Lucy had never really figured out how to climb anything gracefully in a dress. They made it look so damned easy on TV. Jeans would have been easier, but she rarely traveled in pants. A long, knit cotton dress was far more comfortable when you had to sit for hours at a time. She was glad she’d brought the light Abercrombie cardigan, though. It was cold in the bar and her cloak of long brown hair didn’t provide much warmth.
“Can I get a glass of your house chardonnay, please,” she said, using her license to flag down the bartender. She’d been excited to get carded at twenty-one. It was flattering in her late twenties. In her early thirties, it was just kind of annoying. The dude tending bar looked like he should be the one sitting on her side of the counter rather than the one slinging drinks. He barely glanced at her, and only gave the mot obligatory of cursory glances at her ID. “And, hey,” she peeked quickly at her watch, saw that she still had forty-five minutes to her next scheduled boarding time, and sighed, “keep it open.”
The bartender didn’t exactly acknowledge her any more than he had her ID, but he did pluck a stemmed glass from the rack and turn away to the cooler where the wine bottles were stored. Normally she was a rum and Coke girl, but today white wine would have to do or she might not make it to her flight … assuming it ever took off. Lucy laid her driver’s license facedown on the bar top and leaned down to pull her phone and ear buds back out of her bag. Listening to the old country tunes had made her a tiny bit homesick, as crazy as that was. Her family was a nightmare. It hadn’t surprised anyone when she’d taken off the day after high school and rarely came home to visit. She hadn’t seen her family since her grandmother’s funeral—an event that felt like it was both years and hours ago—and she had a sudden urge to call her mother.
But, in the noise of the crowded bar, sequestering herself inside the sounds of a childhood memory playlist would do. Plus, keeping the buds firmly affixed in her ears was the best way she’d come up with to ward off talkative strangers. There were always one or two fellow travelers who felt that airports were a great place to make a new Facebook friend, and Lucy was not in the mood.
Movement shuffled in Lucy’s peripheral vision as someone claimed the empty barstool beside her. She didn’t even bother to look up from her phone—it was only a matter of time until the only other open seat in the airport was scooped up—but she did grip her bag a little more firmly between her heels and do her best to make some space between her and her neighbor at the crowded bar. The room seemed to be getting smaller by the second. She drained the rest of her wine, set the empty glass down, and tapped the bar top to signal a refill, only bothering to look out of the corner of her vision less she accidentally made eye contact with someone who took it for an invite to chat. The bartender saw and nodded absently in her general direction without showing even the slightest bit of personality about it. This guy was really not in it for the tips, and nothing was more depressing in a pub than a lackluster bartender—especially when you were drinking alone.
Lucy checked her watch: thirty minutes to go. At this rate, she might even have time for a third glass before she meandered back to the gate. Of course, three glasses of wine on an empty stomach probably wasn’t that great of an idea. It wasn’t exactly like that Cliff bar she’d eaten earlier was going to be the best sponge to soak up the booze sloshing around in her belly. Then again, supplementing it with crappy airport bar food sounded like a quick way to indigestion, or worse.
The new occupant of the stool next to her leaned in close and said something that sounded like “hermm, mmm, hmm” in her ear. A chatter, there was always a chatter. Lucy tried her best to keep her face from locking up in that grumpy beaver expression she was told she made when she was irritated.
“Hermm, mmm, hmm,” hummed the voice again. Whoever was speaking to her was doing so too softly for her ears to pick up over Randy Travis’ throaty voice crooning in her ear. It sounded like someone was humming into a beer bottle. She was tempted to pretend to ignore it. If she didn’t react, the chatter-er would probably assume her music was too loud and give up. But then her manners kicked in. Rudeness was unbecoming, or so she’d been brought up to believe. She tapped the screen of her phone to pause the music, and as she did she saw, out of the corner of her eye, the soft fuzz of a very familiar looking scallion green fleece.
Her wine-tinged mind barely had time to form the thought, No, it couldn’t be, before she found herself staring directly into the sparkling baby blues of Mr. Gate C30. She blinked once, swallowed down shock, and recovered. Of all the people in the airport, how had it managed to be this one who’d found the only other empty seat?
“I’m sorry, what did you say?” Her voice sounded smooth as silk, not like she was surprised at all.
He laughed in that aloof, good-natured way that men do, and raised his bottle of Heineken to her in mock salute. Even sitting he still towered over her, and she studied his profile while he wasn’t looking. She’d hit the nail on the head: he looked exactly like an old-fashioned country boy, but with all the trimmings of a 21st century man—right down to the oversized TAG Heuer watch on his thick, ropey wrist. Lucy caught a whiff of something that smelled an awful lot like Guess’ Seductive Homme Blue; a crisp, woodsy scent with a hint of black pepper that she had learned to fear since the first time she smelled it at a cologne counter in Dillard’s when she’d been shopping men’s fragrances with Henri. It didn’t have a seductive name for no reason, and a scent like that on a man like this could drop a woman to her knees. She held her breath to keep from inhaling and tried to focus on what the sexy gate guy was saying.
“I said,” he stared forward and addressed her without looking, but he leaned into her, tipping his head toward hers as though he were sharing some private message, “here’s to another missed connection, courtesy of O’Hare International Airport.”
The surreptitious, almost suggestive manner in which he confided this made Lucy’s pulse thump in her throat. She had to hold her breath to slow her heartbeat back down to a manageable level. It wasn’t like he’d just told her he was Superman or anything. Being grounded at the airport wasn’t exactly a secret, but the way he said it she almost hoped it had been. She smiled politely and hoped she wasn’t blushing.
Now that he’d spoken, Lucy should have been relieved to be wrong about his voice. It wasn’t of the warm, melting, thick as honey variety she’d guessed at before. Instead, it was the deep, rumbling, resonant kind—like thunder rolling across the sky—which wasn’t exactly any better. Worse, actually; it was even more irresistible, and affected by an accent which was not country twang but that rolled and licked the words as they fell of his tongue in an undeniably sexy way. It sounded more like Louisiana than Alabama, and a little more creole than cowboy. That voice, those eyes—it was like she was sitting right next to a storm. The south did have a knack for hurricanes.
“Oh, right …” Lucy was uncharacteristically lost for words. There really wasn’t much more to do than to agree, but she wanted to keep the conversation going. The bartender delivered her fresh glass of wine, his eyes shifting suspiciously between the couple as if he’d seen this kind of thing more times than interested him anymore. Nothing seemed to be able to shake this guy’s superior level of boredom. Even so, it provided the perfect distraction to avoid looking directly at the rumbling thunderstorm of a man beside her, which was a small mercy. She took a slow, considering sip of the chilled chardonnay, both to shake off the tension crawling up the backs of her calves and to buy her time for her brain to reboot. “Is your flight delayed?” she asked, attempting to sound disinterested.
“Isn’t yours?” he countered quickly, giving her the full blast of his baby blues again. “We’re on the same flight, I thought, or we’re supposed to be anyway.”
She feigned surprise and prayed she pulled it off. There was nothing worse than being outed by a guy who knew you were into him. He’d already caught her staring once, and she hadn’t forgotten the cocky smirk he’d given her then. She didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of guessing she’d been secretly praying to be seated next to him onboard. “Oh, are we?”
His lifted eyebrow gave away nothing as he turned to take another swig of beer. He either hadn’t caught her bluff or he wasn’t going to call her on it. Either way, Lucy had somehow managed to take the point for that round. She celebrated her victory with another sip of wine. They both knew damn well that the other had been waiting at the same gate, perturbed by the delay. This kind of banter was the first move in the kind of flirting game that she’d been playing since high school, though it was monumentally sexier now when the end stakes were so much higher. Not that she’d be able to cash in on this prize, but it was always a nice feeling to know she was the one winning. She always won. It was her favorite flaw: the need to succeed. Some people called it “over-achieving,” but Lucy preferred to think to it as “driven.”
The Creole-accented stranger strummed his fingers on the bar, swallowed, and responded with, “So, why are you headed into Madison? I assume business …” He tipped his head toward hers again and dropped his voice even lower so that it was a sensuous, pulsing baritone. “Or do you just really like cheese?”
Well, now, he was being a flirt. Lucy, who was well schooled in the art of innocent flirtation, might have met her match. She’d never heard anyone make cheese sound so deliciously filthy. It was likely that she might never look at provolone the same way. Smiling, she raised her eyebrow back at him. She would not give in to the temptation to give a lascivious reply, no matter how many were currently floating through her mind. It might put her over the edge. Lady in the streets, she reminded herself. “Business. Client work. Nothing exciting.”