At the moment, Danielle Worthington was having a hard time believing in true love, much less happily ever after.
After unclipping the camera from the tripod, she adjusted the camera’s shutter speed and photographed the models in front of her. The models were posing as a happy couple. They wore jeans and t-shirts to portray a casual, relaxed look, and stood in front of an historic wooden house with a white picket fence at Sam Houston Park. They were depicting the American Dream.
Their smiles looked true and their affection genuine, but Avery and Jacob could barely stand the sight of each other.
Jacob put his arm around Avery and pulled her close. They gazed at each other, their faces only inches apart. Danielle went up the stairs and stood on the other side of them. She took more photos. They were such a cute couple.
“I’ve got enough casual,” Danielle said. “Go get dressed up, guys.”
As Jacob and Avery turned away from each other, their smiles turned to scowls. At least they were professional enough to pretend to like each other during the shoots.
Danielle glanced at her phone. She had two hours to get back to her office in time to meet her father for lunch. A wave of anxiety swept over her in anticipation of that meeting.
She took a deep breath and swallowed the nausea. Her father loved her no matter what. Right?
He’d always been there for her. There was no reason why he wouldn’t be there for her now.
Avery and Jacob were back within minutes. Avery was now wearing a red party dress, and Jacob was wearing a black tux.
They made such a beautiful couple.
Danielle’s heart did a little summersault as an image of that night flashed through her mind. The night that she had worn a floor-length red dress, and Joey had worn a black suit. Danielle had felt like a princess that night. She’d thought they were in a fairy tale.
The fairy tale hadn’t collapsed at midnight, but at six a.m. the next morning. That girl, whatever her name was, had been surprised that Joey wasn’t alone. In fact, that was the only satisfaction that Danielle took from the whole fiasco.
Now she saw her relationship with Joey for what it had been all along: a sham, just like Avery and Jacob. She’d fallen for an illusion.
After taking several more photos, she could tell that they were getting tired, and she needed to rest too.
Walking back to the parking lot, she enjoyed the warmth of the Houston sun. She’d lived here for six weeks now, but already she had found that she liked the friendliness of the people and the warmth of the weather.
A Los Angeles native, Houston wouldn’t have been her first choice. She had an affinity for New York, though she’d only visited there once with her stepmother, Savannah, whose love for the big city had been contagious.
Nonetheless, Danielle was content with Houston.
Except for one small detail.
When she got to the parking lot, she had to call an Uber. Houston was definitely a driving town, and Danielle would be content if she never had to drive.
After the Uber driver picked her up, she noticed an American flag decal on his rearview mirror. Seeing it was like taking an instant punch to the gut.
Her ex-boyfriend, ex of five weeks and four days, was in the Air Force, stationed here in Houston. They’d been on-again-off-again for several years. When he’d suggested she move to Houston, she’d thought they were moving forward. Together.
Unfortunately, she’d been moving forward alone. Danielle had subsequently implemented a self-imposed dating moratorium. It hadn’t been hard to do since she was in a strange town and knew absolutely no one other than coworkers. And since they all worked independently, she really didn’t know them either.
She’d found a furnished apartment to rent, a job, and left home for the first time.
Okay, she admitted to herself that there were other factors involved. One, her mother had just gotten married a second time, this time to her high school sweetheart, so moving out of the house was long overdue. And second, Houston put her a little closer to her father, who lived in Alabama and had a charter flight company in Fort Worth.
Though she hadn’t seen him in nearly two months, he was flying down today to take her to lunch for her birthday. Today, she would tell him that she and Joey had broken up, and she was living alone in Houston. And again, the thought made her queasy. Odd. She’d never been nervous about seeing her father before.
Maybe she’d picked up a virus.
Samuel Johnson was not a shopper by nature. In fact, he considered himself a man of very minimal needs: basic clothing, an iPhone and iPad, a uniform for work, and a reliable truck. Oh, and an airplane. In fact, the airplane was first on his list, but it was such a basic thing, he rarely even thought about it. Sort of like air.
As a result, standing in the Apple store in Highland Shopping Center trying to decide whether to buy an iMac, a MacBook, a MacBook Air, or a MacBook Pro had him so completely out of his element, that he couldn’t process.
Get her a good Apple computer and put it on the company credit card. What the boss requested, the boss got.
Especially when the boss was Noah Worthington of Skye Travels. The man who was paying him for two weeks before he even started work to give him time to relocate from Houston to Dallas.
The store wasn’t busy this morning, and Tom, one of the blue-shirted employees, stood patiently waiting while Samuel considered his options.
“Do you have any questions?” Tom asked.
Samuel nodded. “Which one should I get?”
Tom laughed. “What do you need it for?”
“I have no idea.”
“No problem,” Tom assured him.
“It’s not for me. It’s for… my boss’s daughter.”
“Ah.” Tom’s eyes widened knowingly. “What kind of work does she do?”
“I have absolutely no clue.”
“Yeah. Oh boy indeed.” He knew her name and the fact that her father was a pilot and owner of Skye Travels, so she couldn’t be very old. “I know today’s her birthday.”
“Well, if she works at a desk, you should probably go with the iMac. If she travels, you can’t go wrong with any of the notebooks.”
“Her father’s a pilot.”
“Too bad it’s not for him.” Tom scratched his chin. “Can you ask him?”
Samuel glanced at his watch. “Not likely. He should be in the air.”
“I don’t suppose you could ask her?”
Samuel shook his head. “Not even a chance. It’s a surprise.”
“We have a fourteen-day return policy.”
A ray of hope opened up, and it was as though the weight of the world fell from Samuel’s shoulders. “Which one is more expensive?”
“The MacBook Pro.”
Samuel tapped the keys on the notebook computer. But the images on the MacBook Pro drew his attention. “I like that one,” he said more to himself than to Tom.
“It’s a great computer. It just came out.”
Samuel glanced at his watch. Always go with your gut. He knew not to overthink things. Go with your first reaction unless you have compelling evidence not to. The wisdom drilled into him as a pilot never failed to spill over into other parts of his life. Besides, if he didn’t make a decision and get moving, he was going to be late.
Two hours later, Danielle looked up from her computer at a knock on her open door. A man holding a large box, half as tall as he was, stood in her doorway.
He wasn’t wearing a uniform, so he didn’t appear to be a delivery guy. Besides, the box was wrapped in what at first glance appeared to be blue birthday wrapping paper, not shipping paper.
A birthday gift? No one here at the office knew it was her birthday.
She glanced at the time on her computer. She had a male model coming in to interview at three o’clock. Maybe he was early. She could get that out of the way while she waited on her father who was characteristically late. No doubt he would blame it on the weather or other flight delay problems.
“You’re early,” she said.
Confusion crossed his features. Adorable. Oh yes! He was hired before he even got inside her office. He was tall and toned with clean-cut features. It was hard to find an attractive male model without a beard these days. And those bright blue eyes were going to light up her camera.
“I try to always be on time, if not early,” he said.
Too bad she wasn’t doing audio. His smooth voice would be perfect.
“Come in,” she said. “I’m meeting someone, but he’s late. We can go ahead.”
He came inside, shifting the box. “Where do you want this?” he asked.
“What is it?”
“It’s an Apple computer. But I think it’s supposed to be a surprise.”
Danielle glanced at the smaller Apple computer sitting on her desk and salivated just a little.
Who all knew she wanted a new, larger, computer? Her mother, Claire, her father, Noah, and her ex-boyfriend.
“Just set it here, on the floor,” she said, indicating the space beside her desk. The relief was evident on his face as he set it down. Danielle didn’t see a card attached.
I’ll have to come back to this.
“Sit,” she said, nodding toward the empty chair in front of her desk.
After he sat, she laced her fingers under her chin and allowed herself to gaze into his eyes. “How long have you been a model?” She asked.
“I’m not a model.”
She smiled as she considered the possibility of exclusivity. She could be the only graphic artist with his handsome face on book covers. “So… no experience?”
He frowned and shook his head. “Not with modeling.”
“It’s okay,” she said quickly. “You don’t have to have experience.”
He grinned and leaned back in his chair.
Okay, maybe he’s a little too relaxed.
“Maybe we could--” Her phone buzzed. It was a text from her father.
Is Samuel there yet?
She wrote back. Who is Samuel?
I sent him to bring your birthday present.
Danielle looked up at the man sitting across from her. Her hopes for exclusivity crumbled.
Is it a computer? She texted.
“Are you Samuel?” she asked, looking up at the man sitting across from her.
Where are you? She texted.
Stuck at the airport in Dallas. Thunderstorms.
“When was he going to tell me that?” She asked, rolling her eyes.
“I’m not sure,” Samuel said.
Danielle scowled at her phone. Who is Samuel? She typed again.
My newest pilot.
Why is he here?
In the process of moving. I took advantage of him being in Houston.
Danielle blew her bangs out of her eyes and ran a hand through her hair.
She glared at Samuel, who wasn’t smiling anymore. “You’re a pilot,” she said, unable to keep the accusation out of her voice.
“Right now I wish I wasn’t,” he said, straightening in his chair, one hand on the chair arm. “I can go,” he said.
Don’t go. “Wait,” she said.
He sat back, watching her expectantly.
“You work for my father.” She made sure to keep her voice calm.
“I started yesterday. Today, he sent me to buy your birthday present.”
She smiled. “That’s my father.” She glanced at the box in her floor. “Who wrapped it?”
“I did,” he said.
“That seems like a lot to ask.”
“Oh,” Samuel said. “He didn’t ask me to wrap it. He just asked me to pick it up from the Apple store and drop it off here. He said he didn’t have time to pick it up before he met you for lunch.”
She melted a little at the thought of this man – this handsome stranger – picking up wrapping paper for her gift and wrapping the computer himself.
“He’s not coming,” she said.
“It’s storming in Dallas,” he said.
“Yeah,” she said, checking her phone. No messages. She shoved it aside.
“Do you have alternate plans for your birthday lunch?” he asked.
She sighed. “I’ll just order something and have it delivered. I might use the time to set up this computer.”
“I can take you to lunch.”
Her eyes widened. The old Danielle Worthington would have jumped at the opportunity to have lunch with a pilot who looked like a model.
No. The new Danielle was under a dating moratorium. Maybe I should go to AA. Hi, I’m Danielle. I haven’t had a date in five weeks, four days, and ten hours.
Lunch technically wasn’t a date.
I’m Danielle. Please help me.
He was waiting for an answer.
“I’m--” I’m normally not this daft. “I can’t,” she said.
He was frowning again. “But… it’s your birthday. Surely you want company.”
“I do, but--” You’re too tempting.
The wave of nausea came out of the blue. It lodged in the back of her throat, and she knew without a doubt that she was going to be sick. She held up a hand. “I’m going to be sick,” she said. I should not have skipped breakfast.
She slipped out of her chair onto her knees and, turning her head just in time, threw up into the wastebasket.
As she hunched over the wastebasket, gagging, she felt Samuel pull her hair back and hold it. He handed her a Kleenex, and she wiped her mouth.
It was one of the most mortifying things she’d ever had happen. So much for impressing the handsome pilot – that she would not, absolutely would not, go out with. Or even out to lunch.
“Thank you,” she said. “I’m better now.”
He put a hand under her elbow to help her up. After she was safely back in her chair, he placed a hand on her forehead. “No fever.”
“You’re a doctor now?” She asked.
“No, but when I was five-years-old, my mother decided to give me two little sisters.”
“Wow. I don’t envy either one of you.”
“You don’t like children?” He asked, pulling the plastic bag from her trash can and tying it up.
“They’re okay. Just not for me.”
“I’ll be right back,” he said, leaving the room and taking the plastic bag with him.
Danielle leaned back and closed her eyes – just for a moment. Then she pulled a mirror out of her handbag and quickly checked her appearance.
This was not good. First of all, she was rarely sick. But that wave of nausea had been overwhelming. This was November. Was there a bug going around? She’d felt okay… Then she remembered the nausea this morning while they were shooting. She was definitely coming down with something.
And second, it was not cool to throw up in front of a hot model pilot. Even if she wasn’t dating right now, and she wasn’t, she could not be throwing up in front of him and having him hold her hair.
She groaned. And sighed. He’d held her hair.
And checked her for fever.
It was good thing she wasn’t open to dating.
Samuel came back into the room and placed a package of saltine crackers on the desk in front of her as he sat back down in the chair.
“What?” She asked.
“They’re good for nausea,” he explained. When she just looked at him, he reached over, opened the package and held it up for her.
She pulled a cracker from the sleeve. “Where did you get these?”
He shrugged. “My truck.” He set the crackers back on her desk.
Danielle nibbled the end off the cracker. “You keep crackers in your truck?”
“My mom has me keep some with me in case I forget to eat.”
Danielle finished the cracker and reached for another one. She swallowed a bubble of laughter. He was a mama’s boy. It was cute.
“Your mother’s pretty smart. I feel better.”
“Good.” He grinned. “Let’s go get something to eat, then we can get this computer set up.”
He shook his head. “There’s no way I’m leaving you now. You don’t get to throw up on your birthday, then eat by yourself.”
He must think she was pathetic. “I had plans.”
“Yes, I know. Your dad. But he can’t be here right now.” Samuel lifted an eyebrow and smiled at her. “And since I work for him, I’m your alternate lunch escort.”
It’s not a date. It’s an alternate lunch escort. He was right. She did need to eat. And it was kind of pathetic to be eating lunch alone on her birthday.
She wasn’t going to tell him that her plan for tonight was to have pizza delivered to her apartment. Alone.
Samuel Johnson was not impulsive.
He also hadn’t dated anyone since Jessica, his girlfriend of four years, had been killed in Afghanistan two years ago. So for two years, he’d kept his heart guarded.
At twenty-five, he wasn’t easily impressed. He kept his head down and his heart in the sky. As a pilot, the only place he felt at peace was in the air. That’s where he felt closest to Jessica. With Jessica in Heaven, it was his way of staying close to her.
Ironically, his focus on flying these last two years had given him a marketable edge. He hadn’t planned on ever leaving Houston, but when he was filling out applications, he’d run across an ad for Skye Travels. He wasn’t sure why Noah Worthington even advertised. His company was legendary.
When Noah had called him to interview and then offered him a job on the spot, Samuel had hesitated. He’d put Noah off for two weeks. He was pretty sure that no one ever put Noah Worthington off, certainly not for two weeks.
But in the end, he couldn’t resist the offer to work for Noah, even if it meant leaving Houston. Technically, he was already on the payroll. He had to take one flight up to Dallas to meet with Noah this week, but otherwise, he’d spend the week packing and getting everything ready to move. Not a bad way to spend the first week on the job.
Until this morning. This morning, Noah had called and asked him to not only pick up a birthday present for his daughter, who just happened to live in Houston, but also to deliver it to her.
Samuel found the whole thing a little perplexing. There was no way that Noah Worthington thought he was going to fly out of Dallas today. Legend had it that Noah was better at forecasting than most meteorologists.
He was also well-known for his stubbornness. Samuel supposed that his daughter’s birthday wasn’t something he would give up lightly. If there had been a way for him to get here, Samuel had little doubt that he would have done so.
Samuel had been surprised to learn that Noah had a daughter living in Houston. He had heard that he had an ex-wife living in California and a current wife living in Alabama. Samuel hadn’t paid much attention to whether or not he had children.
He had a daughter all right. Samuel was nearly speechless as he watched Danielle gingerly nibbling on a cracker. She was beautiful, and he could most definitely see where she could be from California. Her long hair was a swirl of pale lavender and brunette. And it was soft. When he’d held her hair back while she was throwing up, he’d been in awe at the softness of it.
If he hadn’t known better, he would have thought she was pregnant. He almost laughed out loud at the idea. That definitely didn’t fit his first impression. She’d even suggested she didn’t want children.
“Are you better?” He asked.
She nodded and gave him a half-smile. It was the same expression he’d seen on Noah’s face.
“I’m so sorry.” She swept her hair up and dropped it across her left shoulder. “I feel mortified.”
“No need to apologize.” He kept his gaze on her mesmerizing green eyes. “Remember. Two little sisters.”
“Maybe so, but I’m not your sister.”
Thank goodness for that. It had been a long time since Samuel had been this attracted to anyone. About six years, to be precise. He remembered the day he’d met Jessica like it was yesterday. Jessica was nothing like Danielle. Jessica had been jogging in Houston Park with no makeup and her natural-brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. She’d been friendly.
Samuel had been playing Frisbee with his golden retriever, Jack, when the Frisbee landed right at Jessica’s feet. Samuel had always thought it was divine intervention. Laughing, she’d picked it up, and tossed it back toward Samuel. Jack had stopped to look at her, barked once, then turned around and went after the Frisbee.
“Thanks,” Samuel had called out as she waved and jogged away. Three days later, Samuel and Jack had been sitting on a park bench waiting for her. When she saw them, she stopped right in front of them and bent over, hands on her knees, as she caught her breath.
“We’re not stalking you,” he’d said.
“I’m not worried,” she said. “I’m lethal with my hands.”
“I can’t stop thinking about you.”
She’d laughed. And that had been that. They had dated for two years. Then Samuel had proposed, and they’d been engaged when she was deployed to Afghanistan.
Samuel had done everything by the book. He’d had his life with Jessica planned out.
Only Jessica had been returned to him in the belly of a plane, a flag draped over her coffin.
Samuel had done little more than go through the motions for the next two years. He’d all but shut down his life, everything but flying. He stayed in the air as much as possible. When he was flying, he didn’t have to worry about the world.
Or other people.
Jessica had been practical and no-nonsense. Down to earth. He never knew if the military did that to her, or if she was drawn to the military as a result of her personality. Maybe it was a little bit of both.
Now he was sitting here in front of a girl who appeared to be the exact opposite of Jessica. A girl with lavender streaks in her hair. A girl wearing perfect makeup, skinny tights, and a dark gray sweater dress.
And in the mere minutes since he’d met her, she’d thrown up in her wastebasket. Not exactly a very romantic start.
Nonetheless, Samuel was enchanted.
Samuel stood up and waited while Danielle gathered up her handbag and logged out of her computer. “Pappa’s Burgers is just down the street,” she said, almost salivating as she craved a shrimp po’boy. No need to tell Samuel that she had eaten lunch there every day for the last two weeks. “Can you drive?”
“Sure,” he said, following her out of her office.
There was also no need to tell him that she didn’t have a car. There was a city bus stop on the corner near her office. The bus stopped just walking distance from Pappa’s Burgers.
As he fell into step beside her as they walked through the open lobby to the elevator, she couldn’t help but notice that he was a head taller than she was. He was a good height for her. Not that she was interested.
The dating moratorium was firmly in place.
They got into the elevator and went down from the fourth floor to the first. He held the door for her as they walked through the almost-deserted first-floor lobby to the front door. The security guard nodded as they walked past.
When they got to the parking lot, she followed him to a charcoal gray Toyota Tacoma pickup truck. Danielle smiled to herself. One thing she’d learned a long time ago. True Texas boys drove pickup trucks. He held the door as she climbed inside.
Samuel’s truck smelled new and was spotless inside. He went around and got into the driver’s seat. “Pappa’s Burgers, right?” He asked, giving her a smile that sent tingles down to her toes.
“Yes,” she said. “Do you know it?”
“Are you kidding?” He asked as he pulled onto Westheimer Road. “It’s a Sunday tradition in my family.”
“Yeah. My parents, my brother and his wife, my sister and her husband, my youngest sister, and both sets of my grandparents eat there for Sunday lunch all the time.”
“That is so special. I’m jealous. My dad and his family live in Alabama, and my mom and her family live in California, so I don’t think my entire extended family has ever been in the same restaurant at the same time.”
“How sad,” he said.
“Yeah,” Danielle agreed, feeling her eyes tear up. It was odd, because it had never bothered her before. It was just life as she knew it.
They pulled into the little parking lot, and before he jumped out, Samuel glanced at her and said, “wait here.”
He came around and opened her door. Then he held his hand out to help her climb down from the cab. She put her hand in his, and he latched on to steady her. Her eyes met his ocean blue ones, and she forgot she was supposed to be moving. Her hand felt small in his, and a sensation of being in safe hands washed over her.
She swallowed, and with a slight tug on her hand, he guided her from the truck.
When her feet were on the ground, he released her hand. This is not good. It’s not a date. He’s a lunch escort.
They went inside and stood in line to place their order. It wasn’t crowded today. There were only three people ahead of them.
“I’ll be right back,” Danielle said, dashing toward the restroom. I must have been drinking too much water lately. After washing her hands, she put on some clear lip gloss and ran a hand through her hair. The colorist at Visible Changes had gotten her hair exactly right, brunette with a few tasteful purple highlights woven throughout. They’d called it a mermaid balayage. It was Danielle’s first time to have hand-painted highlights, and she absolutely loved it.
By the time she got back to Samuel, he was waiting at the counter to order. The guy behind the counter smiled. “A shrimp po’boy with coleslaw?” He asked.
Samuel glanced at the menu on the wall. “That’s not on the menu,” he pointed out.
“It’s okay,” she said, feeling her cheeks flush that the guy had remembered what she’d ordered every day for the last two weeks. “They make it for me anyway.”
“Huh,” he said. “Make that two,” he told the checker.
They got their sodas and found a booth near the back, next to the windows.
“How long have you lived in Houston?” He asked.
“Six weeks,” she said, sipping her cola. “And you?”
“My entire life.”
She frowned. “How are you working for my dad in Dallas and still living in Houston?”
“Unfortunately,” he said, “that’s about to end. I’ve got about one more week before I have to move.”
“Oh,” she said, not bothering to keep the disappointment from her voice. Despite her dating moratorium, she could still enjoy his company. Samuel seemed like someone she wanted to keep close.
“The real question is,” he said, narrowing his eyes. “With your mother in California and your father in Dallas, how did you end up in Houston?”
That was a door she didn’t want to walk through. She decided to stall a bit before answering. “My dad actually lives in Alabama with his second wife Savannah.”
“I know,” Samuel said. “But still, he has a business in Dallas – or technically Fort Worth – either way, they aren’t here.”
“Yeah,” she said, biting her lip. “That’s kind of a long story.”
“I don’t have anywhere else to be,” he said, settling back in his seat, his eyes focusing on her. Danielle felt the heat rise in her cheeks again. Despite her dating moratorium, she was not immune to having a handsome man’s undivided attention.
The server brought their sandwiches and French fries, giving her a moment to think about how much she wanted to reveal.
He took a bite of his po’boy. “This is really good,” he said. “I think they used to have these on the menu.”
“That’s what they told me.” She nibbled on a French fry and took a deep breath. “I’m in Houston because my boyfriend was transferred here,” she said.
He narrowed his eyes and watched her.
“We broke up five weeks ago,” she added, feeling a need to set that straight. She didn’t want Samuel to think she had a boyfriend. Not that it mattered either way, she reminded herself. Was that relief she saw flicker across his features?
“Wait. You’ve lived here for six weeks, and you broke up five weeks ago?
“Technically five weeks and four days ago.”
She could see him doing the math in his head, but he let it go. “You moved from California?”
“That must be quite a change.”
“It’s a huge change,” she admitted, biting into her sandwich and closing her eyes. She was addicted to these things.
“Are you going to be moving back?”
“I don’t know yet. I have a job here. A job I really like.”
“There’s a chance you might get back together with your boyfriend?” He asked.
“Ha. Never. Not a chance.” Was she supposed to ask about his dating status? It was hard to know how to keep this from feeling like a date.
It already feels like a date.
“Why did you break up?”
She shook her head, shrugged, and looked into those blue eyes.
“I know it’s none of my business,” he said. “But you came a really long way to be with him. For what? Three days?”
“I don’t know. We’d been together on and off for about five years. I thought it was going somewhere, you know. But it turns out he didn’t.”
“He cheated,” Samuel said.
Danielle’s eyes widened. “How did you know?”
“Two sisters,” he said with a grin.
“Right. Two sisters.”
“If you’re so close to your family, why are you leaving?” It occurred to her that he might be moving because of a girlfriend. Or maybe a boyfriend.
“It’s a great opportunity to work with your father. He’s legendary, you know. And it’s not like I have anything else going on.”
“No girlfriend?” She asked, unable to resist.
He shook his head.
He laughed. “I’m heterosexual.”
She laughed back and he stared at her. “That’s good to know.”
“Why is that good to know?” He asked.
“Well,” she said. “You know. So I know how to talk to you. If you like boys, I don’t want to ask you about girlfriends, and if you were gay, well, you know.”
He laughed again.
Danielle was intrigued. Joey hadn’t laughed with her in a long time, and she hadn’t even realized it until this moment. In retrospect, there were so many clues that he was no longer into her.
“I’m glad we got that sorted out,” Samuel said.
She smiled. “Me too.”
Suddenly, she couldn’t eat another bite. “I’m stuffed,” she said.
“You barely ate anything,” he pointed out.
“I know. I do that sometimes. I’m still a little queasy from… you know… earlier.”