The woman sighed heavily as she sank into her seat. She slid her purse under the seat in front of her, saying a silent prayer of thanks that the snowfall hadn’t been as heavy as predicted. She was aching for the comfort of her own bed. She had only been on the road just over the week, but it felt longer for some reason. Probably because she hadn’t seen the sun since she left. Seattle, Detroit, Columbus, Boston, and now Chicago. How do people live in places where they go weeks without sunshine? She’d be suicidal within the first month, she thought. At least the trip had been productive… two commitments, one check and several other good prospects for follow-up.
The flight attendant’s voice interrupted her thoughts. “Can I get you something to drink?” She ordered a glass of Cabernet and inhaled the aroma deeply before taking a sip. Okay, that helped a little—some cherry, plum, and maybe a hint of vanilla. She stared out the window and let her thoughts wander as passengers filed onto the plane, past her, mostly, to the coach cabin. She always felt a little awkward sitting in First Class…like she was a big fraud or something. Her frequent flier status automatically upgraded her when available and she definitely preferred the comfort of the larger seats, but she certainly didn’t travel like this all of the time. The window seat next to her was empty and from the looks of things, might stay that way. There weren’t many people in the First Class cabin tonight, and the seats across the aisle from her were both empty.
She looked at her watch. 5:30. It felt later than that. It was dark out and the snow was falling. Why hadn’t they closed the doors yet? She heard the flight attendants say something about “waiting for one more” so she guessed that answered her question. She laid her head back against the seat and closed her eyes, imagining herself already home, lighting some candles and sinking into a hot bath, Van Morrison playing on the stereo. She felt a pang of guilt when she realized she was not at all sorry that David, her fiancé, wouldn’t be there. He left this morning to L.A. for a business trip of his own and wouldn’t be back until the end of the week.
Funny how once she committed to marry David, she was in no hurry to actually walk down the aisle. Hell, she wasn’t an aisle kind of girl anyway… she was too old for white dresses, bridesmaids and flower girls. David kept pushing for them to just run to Vegas for the weekend sometime—which actually would be fine with her—but they just hadn’t found time. Deep down she knew she wasn’t trying that hard to make the time, either. It wasn’t that she didn’t love David; he was smart, successful and generally reliable. He was by all standards a “good catch.” She just wished he made her heart jump when he walked in a room. The last time she’d felt that was a decade earlier with a thirty-year-old graduate student. He was sexy, funny, thoughtful… and an amazing lover. He’d brought her to orgasm the first time they made love and was only the second man to do so, in spite of the numerous lovers she’d had in college. They could barely keep their hands off of each other and would laugh together until their sides hurt and their faces ached. She was going to have his children and be with him for the rest of her life. It was the greatest feeling she’d ever known. Then a year into the relationship he’d broken her heart into a million pieces—the typical I’m not ready to commit, I need to find myself, it’s not-you-it’s-me bullshit.
It amazed her that she still found herself thinking of him after all these years—the way he smelled, tasted, felt. It also pissed her off, because she had a good man that wanted to marry her. She chided herself for her schoolgirl fantasy—when was the last time she met a man whose mere presence made her feel giddy? She’d read somewhere that the Japanese don’t believe in romantic love and don’t believe rational thought can take place during the throes of infatuation. But for some reason part of her still seemed to think her love life should mimic a Danielle Steele novel. Or a Jackie Collins novel, if you wanted to include sex. It’s not that sex with David was bad. He made the best of what he had to work with but, sadly, it wasn’t much (although of course she always assured him it was fine). He tried to make it up with oral sex but his fascination with cunnilingus bordered on a little creepy to her. He made noises like a starving man when he was down there and wouldn’t let up until she came. Or faked it, which she was doing more and more often. She’d usually wait for him to fall asleep and then finish herself off, and things worked out okay.
Outside the bedroom they were very compatible. They liked the same types of music, books and movies, enjoyed hiking and cross-country skiing, felt the same way about politics and generally enjoyed each other’s company. He told her she was beautiful and that he was lucky to have her. She had tired of the whole dating scene years ago and felt fortunate to have someone like David who respected her and wanted to spend his life with her. There had been one incident a year ago but she’d forgiven him. She was no saint, either, and he had been so apologetic…
The opening of one of the overhead compartments jostled her out of her thoughts. She opened her eyes and reached for her wine glass. As her fingertips played on its stem, she couldn’t help but notice the man putting his carry-on above the seat across the aisle from her. Or rather, notice his ass. Damn. David sure as hell didn’t fill out a pair of jeans like this guy. Actually, few people did, she smiled to herself. They fit like a second skin; too bad he couldn’t stand there like that the whole flight. Her eyes traveled up, taking in the whole picture. Black turtleneck—looked like cashmere—and a tan leather coat, which he was taking off to stash with his carry-on. He had a shaggy mane of blonde hair and was wearing sunglasses, which he didn’t take off. Must either be Somebody or think he’s somebody, she thought to herself. It reminded her of the time she was on a flight with Robert De Niro—who snuck on at the last moment and was the first one off. Then there was the time she was next to that television actress. She recognized her but didn’t know her name, but they had a nice conversation anyway.
The man settled into the seat across the aisle and ordered a glass of white wine from the flight attendant. He ran his hand through his hair and stretched his legs out in front of him. He was wearing expensive cowboy boots—well-worn, she noted, with some scuff marks. He looked across the aisle at her and raised his glass in toast. “Here’s hoping we actually get out of here tonight,” he said, the nodding his head towards the window. She turned to look and was dismayed to see the snow falling harder. She looked back at him and raised her glass. “I’ll second that.” A small smile formed at his lips then he looked away. She pulled the in-flight magazine from the seat pocket and began to thumb through it absent-mindedly. She thought of David and envied the fact that he was in sunny L.A. instead of on a snowy tarmac at O’Hare. She should plan something special for Friday night when he gets home, she thought.
The plane was de-iced, pushed back and was twelfth in line for takeoff. Forty-five minutes later and fifth in line, the captain’s voice came over the intercom. “Sorry folks, but they’re sending us back to the gate. Snow removal isn’t able to keep up and we’re down to one runway. Your safety is our first priority so we’re going to de-board and try again in a few hours.”
A collective groan resonated throughout the cabin. Another stretch at O’Hare she thought to herself. Such a shitty airport to be stranded in. And the primary reason she’d finally caved and bought a membership in the airline’s private club. The plane pulled back up to the gate and she gathered her things. The man in the sunglasses pulled his coat and carry-on from the overhead compartment. He reached into a side pocket on his bag and pulled out a baseball cap, which he placed on his head after sweeping the mane of hair back. He then politely gestured for her to go first. She smiled a thank-you and pulled her own coat & carry-on from the bin and headed back into the airport.
Once inside the gate, she pulled her cell phone out of her purse and turned it on. Two messages. She hit the speed dial for her voice mail. The first was from her friend Tina, and everything about the tone made her uneasy. “Hey, it’s me. Call me as soon as you get this message. Shit. I love you honey.” The next message was from David. “Hey doll. Listen… I can explain everything. Call me.” The sick feeling in her stomach grew.
Fuck. She hoped it wasn’t what she suspected. Yet she knew it was. She walked over to a chair, sat down, and dialed Tina’s number. Tina answered after the second ring. “Should I have a drink in hand for this?” Honey…I’m so sorry but I just didn’t think this could wait until you got home … my flight from Phoenix ended up being routed through L.A. today… I saw David at LAX with her … he saw me watching them … didn’t give him a chance to say one goddamned thing … you deserve better than that …
She listened and assured Tina she was fine and hung up. Well, there you go. Easy ending to that story, she thought. Her phone rang and she saw it was David. She silenced the ringer and turned the phone off.
“Hey, how you doin’? Let me take a look at your wine list.” The bartender at the Ambassador’s Club registered no recognition on his face as he handed the list to the man, watching as he took off his sunglasses and ball cap. They got their fair share of celebrities and it seldom made an impression on him. Of course, he would delight in telling Amy, the bartender whose shift he was covering tonight.
“I’ll take a glass of the Conundrum. I’m going to hit the head but I’ll be back.”
When he returned, he noticed the woman from the plane taking a seat at the bar. She was wearing caramel-colored suede jeans, brown leather boots with a not-too-high spiked heal, and an ivory sweater that fit just well enough to hug her curves. She wore a low-slung belt on the outside of the sweater and carried a brown purse—the kind that doubled as a backpack. Like him, she must have checked her carry-on at the front of the club. She seemed distracted—probably just frustrated, like he was, that the weather was impeding their travel plans. The woman at the customer service desk had told him to check back in an hour or so but didn’t sound hopeful that their flight would take off any time soon.
He took a drink from his glass and watched the woman settle into her seat. She was about five seats away from him at the curve of the bar, which made it easy for him to observe without looking obvious. She had long, chestnut-colored hair that was pulled back into a high ponytail, revealing simple gold hoops in her ears. All in all, a nice package; elegant but sexy. He guessed she was in her mid-thirties. The bartender put a coaster down in front of her and asked her what she’d like. “Do you still have the Conundrum?” she asked. He smiled at the coincidence. She obviously had good taste in wine, as well.
She still hadn’t noticed him, so he kept watching. He felt a little voyeuristic but in the darkness of the bar it felt safe. He didn’t often get the chance to watch someone else without their realizing it. He was fascinated by people and loved to try to guess their stories. Airports were great for that. At least as long as no one recognized him—or acknowledged that they did, anyway. He could usually tell the difference.
He watched as she took the wine glass, swirled the golden liquid and brought it to her lips. At first she took a sip, then, as she started to set the glass down, brought it back to her lips and took a bigger drink. He knew that feeling. Trying to restrain the urge to drown some emotion… frustration, anger… hell, even lust. He wondered which it was for her.
Then he saw it. She set her glass down and looked at the diamond on her left hand. Then slowly, with a virtually imperceptible movement, she removed the ring and dropped it almost ceremoniously into her wine glass. He saw a faint smile cross her lips, along with what appeared to be a silent, brief chuckle. It was a motion of resignation. Sort of an “I-should-have-known” expression.
It was a moment that he knew he would end up translating onto paper and then, ultimately, into song. He was surrounded by a lot of heartache these days, he thought to himself. But some his best songs had come from dark places—either his or someone else’s. He looked at the clock over the bar. Just after 8:00. Looked like they were in for a long night.
He was draining the last of his glass when she noticed him. Their eyes met and he nodded at her. Without the sunglasses, it was clear to her who he was. The epitome of a rock star, she thought, and wondered what he was doing on a flight from Chicago to Denver. He motioned for the bartender to refill his glass. “Get her another one, too,” he said. He saw the surprise on her face. “Well, you’re drinking my wine, after all. We might as well share the bottle—especially since it doesn’t look like our plane is going any where any time soon.” He raised his eyebrows in inquiry, his lips curving mischievously at the corners. Nice mouth, she thought to herself. She gave a small smile. Why not? “All right. Thank you.” She drained the last of her glass and hoped no one noticed her dumping her engagement ring onto the cocktail napkin. The bartender set a full glass in front of her, wondering if she knew who the guy was.
Her stomach grumbled and it occurred to her that perhaps she shouldn’t be drowning her sorrows on an empty stomach. “Will you watch my things while I go grab some food?” she asked the bartender.
“Sure,” he replied. “There is a whole happy hour smorgasbord on the other side of that wall.” He gestured to the adjoining room. She slipped off the barstool and instantly felt the wine buzz in head. Good thing she had thought of food sooner rather than later.
She was loading up on crackers and cheese and raiding the veggie tray when she heard his voice behind her, doing a bad Midwestern accent. “What, no wings, pizza or hot dogs? I thought we was in Chicago.” She turned to see the blue eyes twinkling, crinkling at the edges. Wow. “What’s with all these healthy options?” She doubted he ate much pizza and wings. Not with the way those pants fit.
“What, you don’t do broccoli?” she feigned shock.
“Well, I do, but then I get those little green things in my teeth and you know, that just is not a good look on me,” he smiled then—a big broad smile that almost took her breath away. Good lord he was beautiful. She had to admit that anything marring up that smile would be a crime. Then she watched as he loaded his own plate up with plenty of vegetables himself—including the broccoli. She took some comfort in knowing that he probably had to work hard to stay that fit.
He followed her back to the bar. “Do you mind if I join you?” he asked. She wondered if any woman had ever given him a “no” to that question. “Of course not,” she replied, and motioned for him to take the seat next to her. Before he could ask, the bartender had brought his wine glass over. He smiled and nodded acknowledgement. Their eyes met with that “take care of me and I’ll take care of you” exchange.
He raised his glass. “Here’s to?” It was more of a question than a toast. He was curious as to what she’d answer.
“Apparently another night in the Windy City,” she responded.
“Fair enough,” he answered, and their glasses clinked. He watched as her fingertips played on the wine glass. Finely manicured hands, her not-too-long nails polished with crimson lacquer. Blood red nails on your fingertips. He stifled a smile and fought the urge to roll his eyes. Being closer to her, he could smell a hint of perfume. It was slightly spicy, with subtle floral overtones. It suited her.
“So, is Chicago home?” he asked, popping a cube of cheddar in his mouth.
She shook her head. “No, actually, Denver is. I’ve been here for a couple days on business.”
He nodded. “Which is…”
“I work for the University of Colorado Medical Center.”
“Doctor?” he seemed impressed.
She smiled. “Hardly. I actually work for the foundation.” He appeared to remain interested, so she continued. “I’ve been meeting with prospective donors the past week”.
“Very cool. Any luck?”
“Yes, actually. Good trip. Everything has gone very well,” she paused. “Well, until tonight.” He saw the flicker of the memory of whatever she was thinking earlier cross her mind. Then in an instant it was gone. “I mean, what with the delay.”
“Thank God. I was about to take it personally.” He smiled that brilliant smile again. She tried to tell herself it was the wine when a warmth flashed through her body that felt almost unnatural. Breathe, you idiot.
“And you?” she inquired, willing herself composure.
“Business meetings. Chicago today and then tomorrow afternoon in Denver. I figured I’d get there early and hang out with a buddy of mine. So much for that plan,” he shrugged it off. “S’alright though. Not the end of the world. Better in here with a good glass of wine than cooling my heels on the plane.”
“It appears we’re not the only ones who the same idea,” she nodded towards a large group coming in the door of the bar.
He glanced over his shoulder. “Shit,” he muttered. “Hey, buddy,” he motioned for the bartender. “We’re going to move over to that booth in the corner. Would you do me a favor and have someone check on the flight to Denver for us?”
“Yes, sir.” The bartender picked up the phone.
“Grab your stuff and follow me,” he said calmly, gently taking hold of her elbow and expertly steering her towards the booth, which small and dimly lit. Instantly she knew she should take the seat facing the room and allow him the less conspicuous one. What the hell am I doing?
“Much better,” he said as he sank into the booth. “Isn’t this more comfortable than those wooden barstools?”
Actually, it was. She relaxed a little into the seat, deciding to go with the flow. She was really in no hurry to get home now anyway. She was quite sure that David had cancelled his meetings and was on his way back to Denver and she just wasn’t up to dealing with him yet. A little more time in Chicago was just fine with her. A soft smile formed at her lips and she rolled her head side to side, stretching her neck muscles.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” he chuckled. “So, Denver… you spend a lot of time on the road?”
She nodded. “Enough. About one trip a month I guess.” She started to ask him the same question and realized the absurdity of it. “It’s not so bad. Gives me a lot of time to myself, actually. Sometimes the only time I have to myself is when I’m traveling.” That obviously would be changing, too.
He could certainly relate to that sentiment. Time to himself was not a luxury he had often, and one he most missed… even after all these years. “So how do you normally kill time in airports?”
“The usual… books, magazines, people watching. I like imagining the lives of the other travelers. Must have a frustrated writer on the inside or something,” she blushed at the admission.
“Yeah? Okay…” he glanced over his shoulder and scanned the room. “What about them?” He indicated a man and woman who were obviously having an intense but intimate discussion.
She observed the couple for a moment. “Married about ten years. No kids. She’s a lawyer. She worked full-time as a paralegal while he went to med school, and got her law degree going to night school. He’s just finished his residency, and she has been offered a senior position at a law firm in another city. He doesn’t want to move. She’s frustrated because she thinks it’s about time he gave something up for her for a change. He thinks they should think about having a baby and she thinks he’s being selfish.”
He laughed. “Okay… clearly a lot of happiness at THAT table. So,” he snuck a glance around the room and spotted two men and a woman at the bar. “How about them?” His eyes locked briefly on hers, noticing every detail in a few seconds—almond-shaped, almost emerald in color, framed by long, thick eyelashes. He imagined more than a few men had lost themselves in those eyes.
“Those three? Let’s see…” she sized up the trio. “They are on their way to an architectural conference in Phoenix. The man with the beard and the woman are having an affair and the other guy has no idea. In fact, he has a crush on her and was hoping to make his move at this conference, while the two of them were hoping to ditch him at the reception tonight so they could sneak off for a little illicit rendezvous. Now they’re stuck here, having to pretend it’s all business.”
He nodded his head slowly. “Nice. You’re good. Maybe you should listen to that inner voice a little more.” And I should ignore the one inside me before I get myself into trouble.
She held the wine glass at her lips and allowed herself the luxury of letting her eyes drink him in. She found herself wondering what it would be like to run her fingers through his hair. Sure. Have a fantasy right here in the bar. She chased the thought out of her mind. “Okay. Your turn.”
“Who, me?” From his vantage point he couldn’t really see much and he really didn’t want to draw attention to himself if at all possible. “All I can see is the back of a couple heads and the bartender.”
She realized that she really didn’t want anyone to notice him, either. She rather enjoyed having him to herself. “Okay. Then do me.”
He cocked an eyebrow and a crooked smile stole across his mouth. She realized what she’d said and she felt embarrassment sweep through her veins. At least she thought it was embarrassment...
He decided not to comment on her slip. Freudian, he found himself hoping. Besides, the look on her face was priceless enough. “That’s not really fair. I already know where you work and why you’re traveling.”
“Chicken.” That’s it… tease him more.
“All right,” he said, rising to the challenge. He emptied his wine glass, then lowered it slowly. “You own a house in the foothills, have a cat at home and you garden as a hobby. You have spent the last decade or so focusing on your career.” He paused, and then decided, what the hell. “You recently broke up with your fiancé because he turned out to be a lying bastard.” He paused for dramatic effect. “And you are actually really happy you’re stranded in Chicago right now.”
Her lips parted in a silent gasp. She had a great mouth… the kind of lips that had fueled many a wet dream, he was sure. “So? How’d I do?”
“Well… I actually live in a condo. I hate gardening and I have two cats.”
“And the rest?” He’d come this far…might as well see it through.
“Pretty accurate, actually. What are you, psychic?”
“Not exactly,” he decided to fess up. “I saw you drown your engagement ring earlier.”
She gave a soft laugh. “Ah. Busted. I was afraid I had a big break-up aura around me or something, and that you could just tell by looking at me!”
He grinned. “No. Actually, though, it’s amazing how much you can tell about a person by observing them a little. And by listening ‘between the lines,’ I guess.”
Spoken like a true songwriter, she thought.
Just then the bartender came up and interrupted them with the news that all flights were cancelled and that passengers were being re-booked on later flights the next day.
“Not too much of a surprise, I guess,” he said. He didn’t seem terribly concerned, either, she noticed. He reached into a pocket of the leather coat lying on the booth beside him and pulled out a cell phone. He hit a speed dial number.
“Hey, it’s me …yeah, I’m still at O’Hare—all flights out are cancelled tonight. I need a couple rooms downtown … either one is fine …yeah, great, okay. Talk to you in a bit. Thanks.” He closed the phone and looked at her. “Unless you’d rather spend the night here. I think it’s a safe bet that the airport hotels are already full.”
He had a point. Not that she couldn’t find a room downtown herself. But tonight she was okay with letting someone else take charge. Especially someone like him.
“Actually, I’ve spent more than my fair share of time at this airport and spending the night here doesn’t sound even remotely fun. But you were right. I’m glad I’m not home tonight.” The emerald eyes met his unflinchingly. “Excuse me for a moment?”
He watched as she crossed the bar to the ladies’ room, her words echoing in his ears. He wondered what the rest of her story was. She didn’t seem as if her world was crumbling, that’s for sure. He wondered about the man who had given her the ring—and what he’d done to make her take it off. There was something about her that was incredibly intriguing. Or maybe it was just that it had been so long since he’d indulged in intimate conversation and drinks with a beautiful stranger…
She touched up her lipstick in the bathroom mirror. Her mind flashed back to the summer of 1987: McNichol’s Arena. She was barely 17 and was dating a boy her parents hated. Mark was 21, had long hair and drove a souped-up 1969 Dodge Charger. She had left the house wearing jeans and a t-shirt but later changed into a white leather mini skirt that she’d borrowed from a friend, along with a zebra-striped tank top. And the boots—black cowboy boots with fringe and studs. Her hair was permed and teased and her eyes rimmed with black eyeliner.
They were drinking rum & cokes in the parking lot and missed the opening act. She was definitely feeling no pain when the lights went down inside the arena. She remembered Mark expertly navigating the crowd until they were pressed against the front row barricade. The music was loud and fun, and she found herself wondering who was cuter… the guitar player or the lead singer. The singer wore skin-tight zebra-striped pants, which she thought matched her own ensemble quite nicely. She also thought he had the nicest ass she’d ever seen. Nice to know some things don’t change.
She’d lost her virginity that night, in the backseat of the Charger. Then a few months later, she and Mark had broken up, and she went back to listening to Richard Marx and George Michael. She shook her head at the memory. This is too surreal.
When she returned to the table, he was getting off the phone. “Okay, we’re in. We’ve got two rooms at the Drake, and there is a car waiting for us. I’m ready if you are.”
She nodded. He took a $100 bill from his wallet and tossed it on the table. He grabbed the coat and looked at her. “So, Denver… you got a name?”
She met his gaze. “Jordan.”
“Well Jordan,” he slipped the sunglasses on. “I’m Jon. Let’s get outta here.”