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CHAPTER 20

CHAPTER 20

WOMEN’S FICTION. CONTEMPORARY FICTION. Photo by Shalom Mwenesi on Unsplash

I look down at my feet and see them move but my head is floating somewhere waaay above them, and there is no string connecting what is floating to what is moving forward, one foot in front of the other.

I feel giggly and free until my hand is captured by something warm and firm and tugging me forward. My head is moving at a faster rate than the rest of my body, and it runs into Jake’s arm.

“Woah there, speed racer,” Jake says, and it’s unmistakable, the laughter in his voice. “You do realize that no one else is moving?”

“I can’t see anything from down here,” I say, my chin tipping up and out. “Plus, someone big and tall is right in front of me.”

He smirks, and I’m staring at Jake’s back again as he walks forward, pulling me with him. Why is he holding my hand? I stare down at the appendages making a ‘v’ in front of me, watch as the ‘v’ expands and narrows with every tug.

“Thank you for flying with us,” the airline teammate who had been serving us drinks and smiles says. “Someone’s been having fun on the way home.”

I’m sure the comment is to me, but she’s looking at Jake like something she’d like to take home with her. I giggle at the thought but say nothing as Jake’s hand grips mine a bit harder and pulls me off the plane. My legs feel so heavy. “I’m tipsy,” I hear myself announce.

“That’s an understatement,” I hear Jake say, as I trip the rest of the way to the gate.

“The baggage is that way,” I say, pulling Jake toward the glowing luggage sign once we’ve cleared the door at the top of the ramp.

He ignores me. “I think we should sit for a second.” He successfully directs me to a row of empty seats facing a long bank of windows.

“Hey, that’s our plane,” I chirp, plopping down when Jake releases my hand. I stare up at him, knowing my eyes are probably a bit too wide, my grin a bit too expansive. “I am sorry that I’m tipsy. I swear I’m not drunk.”

“I know,” Jake says, uncapping a bottle of water and handing it to me. “You had one glass of scotch, neat. But there was the mimosa before that.”

I take a long drink of the water and without thinking, hand it back to him as though he’s my assistant. “I’ve never had a drink on a plane before.”

“No?” Jake says, “I couldn’t tell at all.”

“So, it’s true that one drink in the air is like having three on the ground! But you had like...three!”

He chuckles and hands me the bottle of water again. “I think that’s a myth. I’m bigger than you. I also drank three bottles of water throughout our trip.”

I sip, obediently. “We’re friends now, aren’t we?” I say.

“I don’t know if I can have such a lightweight for a friend,” Jake teases, and leans back in his chair, crosses his long legs in front of him as he stares out the window. What looks like a golf cart towing a trailer whips up to our gate, and we watch as two men in fluorescent vests begin the process of unloading suitcases from the belly of our plane. “I think I’ve seen more sides of you in the past six days than I’ve seen of my best friend Cesar in the last twenty-three years so...yeah, I’d say so. There’s no escaping you now.” He turns toward me, and I’m fascinated by the specks of gold and amber in his hazel eyes. “We’re not going anywhere until you finish that.” He shifts in his seat and reaches behind him as the sound of buzzing registers. He places the phone to his ear. “You here? Maybe circle one more time. We might be giving my new friend a ride home, and she needs to pick up her luggage.”

I should call Rich!

I look around for my bag. I don’t remember taking it out of the bin above my seat on the plane. I look at Jake, panic starting to well until he shakes his head, sticks his hand beside him and lifts my leather tote into my sightline as he wraps up his call.

The water is doing its job because I feel a tad less like floating and a bit more aware of my surroundings. Passengers from our flight have been steadily deplaning as I sat drinking my water and I see that families with strollers are now coming through the door. Gate announcements pipe through the speakers, voices echo and bounce off of windows and metal countertops; wheels roll on thinly carpeted floors. I peer into my bag and locate my phone, turn it off of airplane mode. As soon as it connects, text messages from Therese and Rich flood my screen. The latest is from Rich, saying he’d lost track of time and that he was still in Malibu—could I take a car home? He would meet me at my condo as soon as he wrapped up with work.

I look up from my phone to see Jake studying me. In a flash, I hear and see myself over the course of the last hour--a silly girl who can’t hold her liquor. I flush. “I feel better,” I say. “My head has decided to connect to the rest of my body.”

Jake chuckles, which makes me feel better. “Glad to see that.” He tilts his head toward the water, still looking at me. “It’s not empty, yet.”

I roll my eyes and gulp the rest, handing him the empty bottle for inspection. “May we go now?”

He slaps his hands flat against the armrests and stands, grinning down at me. I grin stupidly back. I know it’s still the scotch talking when I hear myself say, “I’m sad to see you go, Jake Hurst.”

He reaches his hand toward me, and I take it, basking in the warmth that shoots through me at his touch.

***

One of the small perks that I valued most about flying first class was that in theory, if I ever travelled with bags (which I seldom did), my luggage would be waiting for me by the time I made it to the baggage claim. Today, escorting Olivia to get hers (she’d packed one giant suitcase that looked like it weighed more than she did), I found myself wishing I’d ordered one of the hotel cars today. I imagined Olivia’s face lighting up at the sight of a Hurst employee in a smart black and white uniform, holding a card with her name scrawled elegantly on it, her luggage already collected.

From the moment we’d decided to be friends, all of the coldness she’d directed toward me had transformed into rays of rose-gold sunshine. I could see now a playfulness in her attitude that had me transfixed. I grin at the sight of her skip-walking just a hairsbreadth ahead of me as we take the tunnel-like passage toward the baggage claim.

When her phone dings, she texts back with what appears to be a one-word answer.

“Everything okay?”

She flashes me a smile. “Yes, no problem. Just my ride.”

Double doors slide open in front of us, and we join the throng of people in search of their luggage. “Yours will be down here,” I say, pointing toward the furthest claim on the right. I feel my phone buzz in my pocket and answer it, knowing it will be Cesar. “Hey man, two minutes. Door closest to the international terminal.”

I spot Olivia’s black suitcase with colorful ribbons and the “first class” tag streaming off of the handle and feel a prick of annoyance. If we’d had the option of flying my regular carrier an agent would have taken my bag off the carousel already, had it waiting safely by their offices instead of circling on the belt getting banged around. I leave my carryon with Olivia and step into the crowd of people jostling each other for position, hoist her bag off the belt and carry it close to me. I motion for her to follow as I make my way away from the madness and toward the doors leading outside.

“Thank you,” Olivia says with a smile, pushing my bag toward me and taking the handle of hers. “You’re a great travel buddy.”

“High praise, coming from you.”

“Yeah, I’m pretty great with the compliments,” she says. She awkwardly sticks her hand out for a shake. “Thanks for treating me to my first ever first-class experience... and getting tipsy in the air... and for wanting to invest in Tomahawk Hill.”

I raise an eyebrow at her, ignore her hand and open my arms instead. “You clearly need some lessons on how to thank a friend properly.”

When she drops her hand and laughs, her green eyes flashing, I feel something like exhilaration. I know that there is no way earning a laugh from Olivia could feel the same as flying eighty miles an hour down an open road on my motorcycle, but the way I feel when she steps into my arms makes me think, it could.

Her head rests just under my chin, and I want to stick my nose in her hair, soak her in. She smells as elegant and aloof as a boutique in Beverly Hills and at the same time, as warm and inviting as the sun warmed fields we’d walked through this week. Her arms tighten around me, and I fight the urge to pull her close until there is no space between us. Before I think better of it, I’ve kissed the top of her head.

She stiffens in my arms and pulls back, her face suddenly flushed.

“I’m sorry,” I say, forcing myself to sound slightly bored. “I’d have kissed your cheek, but you’re so damn short...”

The ineffective punch she lands to the side of my arm lets me know that she’s taking me at my word, that it is not unusual for me to kiss a friend on the cheek, on the head.

“So... I’ll be seeing you at some point in the next couple of weeks?”

“I hope to have the contracts ready for you by the end of this week.” I look toward the curb where Cesar is pulling up in his Mercedes. I wave at him, motion for him to wait. “Will your ride be here soon?”

She shakes her head. “Rich got tied-up at work. But I’ve ordered a car. It should be here any minute.”

I shake my head, taking the handle of her suitcase. “Nope. You’re coming with Cesar and me.”

“Oh, I’ll be okay, it’s already on the way...”

I hear a car door open, Cesar’s playlist adding an upbeat tempo to the aggressive sounds of honking horns and irate Angelinos trying to escape the impossible traffic at LAX.

“Cesar, this is Olivia. We’re dropping her off on the way home.”

I watch Olivia’s shoulders relax as Cesar’s dimpled grin and boisterous energy beeline for her. “I’m sure you’re sick of this guy by now. Stuck with him for four hours straight on the plane, right? Come sit up here with me,” he says, opening the passenger side door. Without further protest, Olivia slides into the front seat as I wrestle both of our luggage toward the trunk of the car. Cesar pats me on the back as he strolls by, hops into the driver’s seat. He, of course, waits until I thump the trunk of the car before he pops it open. I shake my head, grinning. I can already hear him chattering to Olivia and making her laugh about an incident at the hotel this morning. By the time I slide into the back of the car, an alliance has formed, and Cesar is giving me a look in the rearview that tells me he hasn’t missed a thing since he spotted me at the curb hugging Olivia.

CHAPTER 21

CHAPTER 21

CHAPTER 19

CHAPTER 19