The clack of my heels on the linoleum rises above the hum of the wheeled luggage. I’m acutely aware of the sound the uncomfortable footwear makes as I jog in my haste to catch my flight. The connection from Chicago to Las Vegas was already slim, made even more so by my first flight’s late arrival, and by the look of the grim weather outside the massive airport windows, there’s a very real possibility of being stuck overnight if I don’t get on this plane now.
“Bree? Are you listening?” my boss, Amanda, asks.
“I’m here,” I pant into the phone at my ear, fibbing as my mind wanders elsewhere. Whose idea was it again to trade Tabata Tuesdays for tacos? I’m sure if I asked my cousin and best friend, Janie, she’d point one firm finger in my direction while sipping a margarita in solidarity with the other hand.
“Remind me again when you’ll be back to work?”
A cough for air vaguely disguises a huff. “A week from Monday.”
“What about the designs for Mr. Ross?”
“I’ll send the sketches over in the morning, and then I’m officially off the clock.”
“I suppose that will do. I guess I appreciate you tying up all your loose ends before heading off on vacation.”
My chest seizes so tightly I nearly lose all the remaining breath. My self-absorbed boss would be the only person on the planet to call bereavement leave a vacation. A black tunnel surrounds my vision.
“Consider it taken care of,” I retort.
Maybe she should also consider the fact I have over six weeks’ worth of PTO saved up and could easily take the entire month off out of spite. Not to mention the business card from a potential client I met on my trip currently burning a guilty hole in my back pocket that might be the very ticket to getting me out from underneath her overbearing, micromanaging thumb.
The airport intercom crackles to life as a disembodied voice calls for final boarding from my connecting gate.
“My plane is boarding. I have to go.”
“Have a nice flight, Bree,” she drones.
“Thanks.” The word feels as dry as sawdust in my mouth. I run my tongue over my glossed lips as I end the call.
A light sheen of sweat tickles my forehead. A pass beneath an air vent sends a gust by the damp area and intensifies the perspiration from my hike.
I search in my brown bag slung over my shoulder to swap my company phone for my personal cell. If I don’t text Janie now to remind her what time my flight lands, it’ll be too late. Punctual is not a word I’d use to describe my best friend, and anything less than a three-hour warning will result in me sipping cocktails in the airport lounge until she arrives.
Which at this moment doesn’t sound like too bad of a plan.
As it is, there’s already an in-flight cocktail with my name on it, maybe even two. I can’t forget about my eye mask and the latest bestselling romance on audiobook I’ve been saving for just this moment to press play.
The pleasant thoughts dancing around my head screech to an abrupt halt. A flock of passengers deplanes several gates away from mine, and I wind up in the middle of the chaos. My wheeled bag slips from my hand, my purse falls from my shoulder, and half the contents dump while my phone skitters across the linoleum between a jungle of dirty shoes.
I teeter scarily on my heels before gravity wins. My arms pinwheel wildly, and I curl my fingers around the nearest object, dragging it down to soften my fall.
The choking noise is a little suspect, but I quickly forget as my knees connect with the ground, followed immediately by the slap of my palms.
“Ow,” I groan. Several points of contact on my body sting from the fall.
“I’ll say,” someone grunts beside me. “All right there, sugar?”
The masculine voice wrapped around that word in such a familiar way settles like lead in my stomach. I blink twice, three times, as I’m instantly transported into the distant past. Images of short inky curls and sapphire-blue eyes blaze through my head.
“I’m sorry.” I wipe my palm off on my black dress pants and settle it against my forehead in an attempt to stop my spinning thoughts. I let a laugh at my expense slip free. “I’m not usually so careless.”
Quite the opposite actually. My life has been so carefully constructed and unruffled for a decade that this incident is unlike me. Receiving a call in the middle of a business trip that the woman who was like a mother to me passed away is the culprit to my disorganized state.
Finally feeling composed, I roll my shoulders back and lift my head to properly apologize to the stranger I literally dragged into the fray with me.
The smile from a moment before slips off my face as if it’s been wiped clean from my anatomy.
I freaking know those eyes.
“Well, I’ll be damned.” His tongue slips out to swipe along his lower lip, and a signature carefree grin tilts the corners. I’m just close enough to note the hesitance in its rise.
“I, uh, um.” I wipe both my palms on my thighs again and look around the still busy terminal. My head feels heavy, like I’m in a fog, and my heart composes a rapid beat against my ribs.
“I’m sorry,” I mutter again and move to shove my things into my bag. A pack of spearmint gum, Airpods, a tampon, a granola nut bar for the flight. A low hum catches my attention, and my eyes pop wide. I nearly cry out in warning when an elderly gentleman almost trips over my mini Magic Wand buzzing happily into his path. The orgasm aid wriggles like a worm on the dirty floor. I stretch across the distance, stopping its dance with the press of a button and throw it into my purse.
“It’s for my muscles,” I mumble beneath my breath.
Embarrassment paints my cheeks pink while I wait for something to happen.
The man was too stunned to speak.
“You look good.” His deep voice wraps around me like a worn, familiar blanket from my childhood.
I can’t resist the urge to observe him for myself after hearing him say those words. To drink in the sight of his tall frame and find out if his assessment is reciprocal.
Stupid, stupid Bree.
Taking in a good look is the last thing I need as questions I’ve kept locked tight flood forward.
The first thing I allow myself to clock is his black dress shoes and charcoal slacks. The object I clung to as I fell is a navy silk tie, knotted around his clean-shaven throat and falling neatly against a crisp white shirt buttoned up the front. Professional attire. Pressed and clean.
Nothing like the guy I remember. Where are the sweatpants and comfortable, worn tees? Or the worn-in but nicely fitted blue jeans?
Even in a crouch on the dirty airport floor, he looks as put together as if he just walked out on the red carpet. Even his curls cooperate and lie in tempting twisted ringlets against his head.
“Did you hit your head?” His concerned voice comes at me again.
Did I? Because the man before me appears as a mirage. A figment of my imagination of what we could have been. A Corjan Powell from an alternate dimension. I could almost laugh at the image we make in our business attire. Something I couldn’t have imagined for either of us when we were together, broke and living in a small town. It’s not until I notice his hand reaching out as if to touch me that I break from the silent observation of my estranged husband.
“I have to go.” I push to a stand on unsteady heels, brushing my hands against my pants once more for good measure. My sweaty fingers wrap around the handle to my carry-on bag, and I clutch at the purse strap in front of my shoulder. Where’s my phone?
“Do you have some time before your flight? Maybe we could grab a quick bite and catch up.” He hooks his thumb in a gesture at the many restaurants lining the terminal behind him. His relaxed and cool demeanor does nothing to soothe my frazzled nerves.
“I don’t,” I answer while scanning the floor. I spot the simple black case a few feet away and immediately scoop up the device. “My flight’s leaving now.”
Two successful steps propel me toward my gate before a large, warm hand wraps firmly around my bicep. “Wait.”
His hand, that word, my heart beginning to tear apart at the mere sight of him has me throwing all willpower out the window and allowing myself to glance straight into his intense blue eyes.
What a fucking mistake that turns out to be.
The minute my gaze locks with his, I see it there within the subtle depths. The hint of betrayal. The questions. And a pain echoed deep within my own soul. A pain of my own making.
“Don’t go. We should talk.”
“It’s in the past.” I’m proud of how little my voice quivers this time.
His hand drops from my arm, and I instantly notice the chill seeping in to replace his warmth. “Are you really going to walk away from me again?”
“What do you want me to say, Corjan? Ten years is a long time.”
He tucks his hands into the pockets of his slacks and rocks back on his heels. “It sure is,” he deadpans.
“If that’s supposed to be some sort of jab—”
“It’s not.” He waves a hand between us.
“It was nice to see you, but I’m going to miss my flight.”
The way his eyes travel down my body and back up to my face feels like a gentle caress, bathing my body in a heat I haven’t felt in a long time.
“It was really good to run into you too.”
No matter how hard I try not to interpret his tone, I can’t help but sense the sadness. I don’t even have to strain to hear it. It’s almost as if I can feel it awaken my own deep within my bones. The echoes ricocheting like noises in an uninhabited cave.
“Take care, Corjan.” My throat squeezes the words on their way out.
“You too, Bree.”
Adrenaline fuels me to put one foot in front of the other as I walk away from the man I used to love more than anything in the entire world. It’s not until I’ve put some space between us that I remember I’m supposed to be on my connecting flight home and pick up the pace.
The gate comes into view just beyond a sea of people, and I wave my arm like an idiot while I dig out my work phone with the other. I grumble at the hassle, but if I want my job to pay for my trip, it has to go through the company apps.
“Wait! I need to board.”
“You just made it.” The agent smiles as I scan the electronic ticket.
“Thanks.” I hustle down the jetway. The sweat returns to my forehead, not that I’m certain the sticky dew ever left. I can practically taste the crisp vodka soda I’m eager to get in my hands.
Corjan’s distant voice causes my steps to falter, and my luggage clunks to a stop behind me. I squeeze my eyes shut before reopening them with a forced exhale. The sight of the aircraft door and the flight attendant waving me on up ahead propel me forward after only a few seconds of hesitation. I have to get home. Janie needs me. And I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready to reopen the wound that is my estranged husband.
No matter how tempting that deep timbre might be.
In another moment or another life, one where I wasn’t running to catch a flight, I might have liked to grab lunch and catch up. But today is not that day.
“Welcome,” the flight attendant greets me in a pleasant voice as I step onto the plane.
I manage a tight smile in return and easily locate my seat in business class. Once I’ve stowed everything away, I drop heavily into my seat. With the sudden exhaustion overtaking my body, I might not have time for that drink before drifting off to sleep at thirty-five thousand feet.
The sight of the flight attendant closing the aircraft door sends a pang of longing through me. Long buried feelings simmer just beneath my skin. I groan and cradle my forehead in my clammy palm, replaying the intense interaction with Corjan in my head.
Awkward should be my middle name because that was just painful. The circumstances didn’t allow for much. The right thing to do is to look him up as soon as I get home and apologize for my hasty departure. I owe him that. I owe him so much more for things I can’t take back.
Thoughts of home remind me I never sent Janie that text. I locate both my phones to switch to Airplane Mode. Beneath my feet, the aircraft begins to taxi. I stifle a yawn and hold my personal cell up to capture my face to unlock, but nothing happens.
I should know the software isn’t going to recognize my yawn face when it barely recognizes me if the angle is off an inch in either direction. I laugh soundlessly to myself.
The phone rejects my passcode, and I squint at the screen.
What the heck is that?
The gasp I release isn’t soundless. Nor is the curse word when I drop my phone on the floor.
Another burst of adrenaline sends a tremor to my fingertips as I retrieve the device from between my feet. Refusing to think about what kinds of germs live down there, I wipe it off with my sleeve and blink at the screen again.
Is that… Is that a chihuahua in a green turtleneck sweater?
This has to be a prank. Did Janie change my screensaver without me noticing? I turn the device in my hands, not finding anything to be different about it.
I balance the phone on my left knee, the screen bright and the chihuahua staring up at me as I open my work cell and punch in my personal number.
Nothing happens. The chihuahua mocks me with its squinty brown eyes and tongue lolling out of its mouth.
This can’t be happening. I hold my work phone up to my ear, panicking at the thought of losing my personal phone in Chicago. Since I never backed up my storage to the cloud, the irreplaceable memories and photos of my life from the past few years will be gone forever.
Torn between admitting defeat or making a fool out of myself to be let off the moving plane, I’m about to hang up when the line stops ringing.
Someone answers my phone.
That deep voice doing crazy things to me that I haven’t felt in years.
More like a decade.
Not one single person has been able to replicate the feeling of Corjan’s smooth voice murmuring my name.
Are you ready for Monday? Preorder Strayed now and start reading as soon as it’s released!