My flight was booked for early on Wednesday so I’d have the afternoon to set up at Advanced Focus’s Kansas City consumer research office for the first focus group session on Thursday morning. Chase had been out of the office all Tuesday afternoon, so I’d texted him that I wouldn’t be able to have dinner. He had responded with one word. Fine. He probably thought I was trying to blow him off again after I’d let things—let myself—get out of hand this weekend.
Now it was nearly six-thirty Wednesday morning, and I was getting ready to head to the airport when he finally expanded on his previous text.
Chase: I’ll take a rain check. But this time I’m collecting it.
There wasn’t time to text back. The car service was coming at six-thirty, and my elevator could sometimes take a few minutes. I zipped my suitcase closed, tossed my phone in my purse, and gave Ugly Kitty a quick pet.
“Your real owner is going to take care of you while I’m gone. Make sure she doesn’t go through my shit.” I stroked Tallulah’s head. “You be a good little Ugly Kitty and claw my mom’s ankles when she starts rummaging through my underwear drawer. Okay?”
A dark town car was waiting in front of my building when I got downstairs. Even though my flight wasn’t for two and a half hours, I began to stress when we hit a dead stop on our way to the Tunnel. Taking a deep breath, I began to relax when we finally made it out of Manhattan, only to panic again when the other side of the Tunnel was worse than the city.
“What’s going on?” I asked the driver. “This is bad even for rush hour traffic.”
“Construction. Supposed to end by six each morning, but the laborers must want the overtime.” He shrugged and pointed to the road ahead of us, which was a sea of brake lights as three lanes attempted to converge into one.
As we inched our way forward over the next hour, it killed me to discover that although the cones were out for miles, there wasn’t actually any construction going on anymore. Checking my watch, I realized there was a distinct possibility I could miss my flight if traffic didn’t clear soon.
On a good day, I was a nervous flyer. The added stress of possibly being late caused my heart to accelerate even more. Needing to distract myself, I took out my phone. A new text had just arrived.
Mom: You need to clean out your refrigerator more often. You have expired pickles.
Really? Was she hiding outside in an alleyway when I left? Just couldn’t wait to go in and start her investigation? I’d left Ugly Kitty with a full dish of food. It wasn’t even necessary for her to stop by until tomorrow. I’d fix her. Screwing with her would take my mind off of my upcoming flight.
Reese: Don’t throw it out. I keep the expired stuff to feed to Tallulah.
Moving on, the next text was the one I hadn’t answered yet from Chase—about the rain check for the dinner I’d canceled last night.
Reese: Won’t be back until the weekend. My boss wanted to get rid of me, so he sent me to Kansas.
After responding to a few more texts and emails, I successfully took my mind off how late I was running. I arrived at JFK with thirty-five minutes before takeoff and hauled ass to a kiosk for check-in. When I spotted the length of the security line up ahead, I almost broke down and cried.
Desperate, I walked over to a TSA agent. “There’s no way I’m going to make my flight if I wait in this line. The Tunnel took forever to get through, and there was construction on the LIE. Any chance I can cut ahead? I’m traveling for business, and I really can’t miss my flight.”
“Ticket.” She held out a plastic-glove-covered hand and looked at me like she heard the same sob story a hundred times a day. Handing it back to me, she pointed over her shoulder. “First-class line to the left.”
I let out a breath when I saw there was no line where she was sending me. “Thank you so much!”
Of course, my gate was at the other end of the terminal, but I managed to get through security and down to the boarding area just as they announced last call. Since there was a small line to board, I caught my breath and walked up to the ticket counter to see about changing the middle seat I’d been issued when I purchased.
“Is there any chance I could switch my middle seat? I know I’m late and the last to board, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask.”
“We’re pretty full…but let me check.” The attendant took my ticket and punched a bunch of numbers into the computer. Furrowing her brow, she said, “You actually don’t have a middle seat. You have an aisle.” She slid the ticket back to me and pointed. “Row two.”
That made no sense. “I was in row thirty-something when I bought the ticket.”
“Not anymore. You’re in an aisle seat in first class. You must have been upgraded.”
The line to board had dwindled, and who was I to argue about being in first class anyway? When I reached row two, I pulled my purse from my shoulder and shoved it under the aisle seat. The window seat was empty, but I noticed the New York Times folded in half atop where there was no passenger. I opened the overhead compartment and checked for room to store my bag before reaching down to grab my suitcase handle.
A large hand startled me when it covered mine. “Here. Let me.”
My head whipped toward the man standing next to me, but I already knew whom I’d find.
“What’s going on in that head of yours?” Chase asked.
I’d been quiet since finding him on the plane. I was a nervous flyer to begin with, and having Chase surprise me the way he did had thrown me for a loop. My heart was beating out of control as we began to barrel down the runway. I gripped the armrest between us and gave him a curt answer.
“I hate takeoff. And landing. All the stuff in the middle is fine.”
Chase covered my hand with his and squeezed. He didn’t let go when we were in the air. Once our altitude leveled, I let out a deep breath, and my shoulders relaxed.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were taking this trip?”
“It was a last-minute thing.”
I squinted, wondering if he had planned this all along. “How last minute?”
He looked me straight in the eyes, and I could see his apprehension. “I don’t even have an overnight bag.”
“What do you mean, you don’t have a bag?”
“I left my house this morning with every intention of going to the office.” He paused and ran a hand through his hair, muttering the rest. “Not even sure how I got here anymore.”
“Are you serious?”
Shaking his head, he said, “You’ll be the one sharing your shirt with me this time.”
“I don’t think my shirt would fit you.”
“So you want me shirtless, then? I knew it.”
The flight attendant came by and gave us menus. “Can I get you something to drink?”
Chase answered without looking at his menu. “We’ll take two mimosas.”
I looked at him. “It’s barely nine in the morning.”
“It’s a special occasion.”
The flight attendant smiled and took the menus. “Are you celebrating something?”
Chase’s hand still covered mine on the armrest. He lifted them, linked my fingers with his, and brought my hand to his mouth for a kiss. “It’s our honeymoon.”
“Wow. Congratulations! That’s wonderful. Are you connecting through Kansas or is that your final destination today?”
“We’re staying in Kansas. The new Mrs. is a huge Wizard of Oz fan and wants to hit the museum.” He pointed with his chin down to our feet. I happened to be dressed in all black and wearing red heels. “She gets a little carried away sometimes.”
The flight attendant managed to keep her smile, but I could see she thought I was a little nutty. I mean, who the hell in their right mind would go to a museum when they’d just married a man who looked like the one I was sitting next to?
After she walked away, I turned to Chase. “A Wizard of Oz fan?”
Chase grinned. “It’s more of a fetish, but whatever you’re into.”
“And who would you be? The scarecrow with no brain? Where do you come up with this stuff?”
“Was coming out of the bathroom when you walked onto the plane. Saw those sexy-as-shit red shoes, and I might have had a little role-play fantasy.”
“I really think you need help.”
“You might be right.” He leaned close and lowered his voice. “But if you wanted to wear those shoes, pigtails, and nothing else, I’d be one happy Tin Man.”
After the flight attendant had brought our drinks (and called me the bride), Chase and I had a moment of honesty.
“How long are you staying in Kansas?” I asked, reaching down into my purse to grab my Chapstick for a quick freshen up.
His eyes followed along as I lined my lips. “You use that stuff a lot, huh?”
“Yeah. I’ve noticed you putting it on a few times.”
“I’m kind of addicted to it.”
“I don’t like the waxy feel on my lips. You’re going to have to stop using it soon.”
“Let me guess—because my lips will be smearing it on yours?”
“Yet another reason why we could never work,” I teased.
“One of us will get over it.”
I shook my head at his persistence. “So how long did you say you’re staying in Kansas?”
“That’s up to you.”
“Up to me?”
“I didn’t lie when I said I tried to not come. The minute I heard you were going out of town, I wanted to join you. Thought about telling you I wanted to sit in on the sessions, but figured you’d see right through that.”
“So you’re saying you came for no other reason but me?”
He nodded seriously. “Just you.”
“Is this your normal style? Stalkerish chic?”
“Not exactly…which is probably why I have no idea what to do. Avoiding it hasn’t really been working.”
“So what is your style then when you date?”
“How’s this honesty thing working for me?”
I laughed. “Pretty good so far. Go ahead, I won’t judge.”
Chase gulped back the rest of his mimosa. “I haven’t had to work too hard for a woman’s attention.”
“I would have guessed that. Is that what the intrigue is here, then? A man who wants what he can’t have? That’s not a novel concept.”
His eyes went back and forth, searching mine, and I knew he was deliberating saying something. Eventually, he said, “You’re right. I do want what I don’t have. That’s part of it. But not in the way you think. Don’t ask me to explain it, but when I’m around you, I’m happy. That’s all I’m after.”
His answer caught me totally off guard. “Wow. That’s…that’s…incredibly sweet.”
Chase took my half-full mimosa from my hand and chugged it before speaking again. “Now don’t get me wrong, I’d be way fucking happy if you were beneath me at night. But you want to keep some distance between us physically? I respect that. Although, I’m going to be right here…making it hard for you.”
It was my turn to lean in. “Is that in the literal or figurative sense?”
Chase still had my hand entwined with his. He pulled it to his chest and lowered it down his abs, stopping just above the top of his pants. “Keep it up—I’m going to demonstrate.”
After landing, we caught a cab to the focus group offices and spent a few hours working with the facilitator who would run things the next day. Chase helped set up, but he deferred to me for decisions that needed to be made where I had more expertise. I liked that in a boss…and a man.
After we’d finished, we stopped by a mall on the way to our hotel since Chase really hadn’t brought an overnight bag and had nothing to wear. Inside Nordstrom’s, I helped him pick out some casual clothes. While he was in the fitting room, I continued to shop on some of the nearby racks. He walked out wearing a pair of jeans and a simple navy polo that fit perfectly across his wide chest. His feet were bare and his hair even more mussed than usual from changing.
I walked over with a button-up I’d picked out, and Chase held out his arms and did a little spin circle. “Good?”
“I seriously doubt there’s anything that looks bad on you.” I held out the other shirt for him to try on.
He reached up over his head, tugged at the yoke of the polo, and pulled it off in that way that only boys remove their shirts. It was impossible not to stare. His body was just so incredibly perfect. Tanned and lean, every muscle seemed carved into his body. The jeans were a bit loose at the waist and hung low, showcasing his deep-set V. I was pretty sure he had the best body I’d ever seen up close.
I had inadvertently licked my lips, and Chase noticed. “You keep looking at me like that, we’re going to wind up in the fitting room.”
A vision of the two of us in the fitting room, up against the mirror, flashed in my head. When I didn’t respond, Chase knew—he knew—what I was visualizing. My arm was still extended, holding the shirt. Chase reached out, but instead of taking it, he tugged my hand and pulled me close.
“You’re fired,” he groaned as he buried his face in my hair. “So fucking fired.”
I was one exhale away from giving in when a woman’s voice brought me back to my senses.
She cleared her throat. “Is there anything I can help you find?”
I jumped back, putting space between the two of us. But I was still unable to speak. Chase answered her, speaking into my eyes.
“No, thanks. I think I have everything I need.” Our gaze held until he finally said, “Let me go get dressed.”
“Ummm…yeah…right…okay. I’ll grab you a few T-shirts while you change.”
When he turned to walk away, still shirtless, for the first time I noticed a tattoo on his side. I couldn’t make out what it said, but it looked like a bunch of writing going up his ribs.
Shaking my head as I walked away, still feeling hot and bothered, I thought to myself what an enigma my boss was. A smart CEO with custom-tailored suits, a nipple ring, and tattoo—a man who gets on a plane without luggage and admits he tried to keep away but couldn’t stop himself. The only thing holding all those distinctively different traits together was that they all said the man had passion. I could feel that in the way he looked at me. And as much as it turned me on to no end, it also scared the living crap out of me.
We were quiet for a while after that. Chase reappeared fully clothed, and it took us another half hour in Nordstrom’s to grab T-shirts, boxers, and sneakers. When we were finally done, the sun was beginning to set outside, and I yawned on the walk to the rental car in the parking lot.
“A little. It’s been a long day.”
Chase opened my car door, waited for me to get in, then tossed his purchases in the backseat.
Before pulling out, he turned to me. “How about dinner at our hotel, then? The website said there’s a steakhouse. We can get you fed and into bed.”
“I meant for some rest. But if you’ve got something else in mind…”
Oh, I had something else on my mind all right. And it was getting harder by the moment to think of anything else.