The urgent ping of the call button broke through the first-class cabin as the airline passengers prepared for takeoff, some bringing their ongoing New Year’s Eve revelry attitudes on board, others clearly nursing hangovers from the night before.
The last to board, Wes Campbell handed his winter coat to the waiting flight attendant. Ringing in the New Year with his newest client hadn’t been his first choice. Neither had the multiple rounds of Dom Perignon.
He sank wearily into his leather seat, grateful that the nasty winter weather had cleared long enough for his flight home. The second call-button ping came just as he closed his eyes. Determined to catch some much-needed z’s, he ignored the male flight attendant as he passed to assess the problem.
Until Wes heard a female voice address the man from a few seats back.
“I hate to complain, dude.” The vaguely familiar tones reached through the sleep-deprived, muddled mess of Wes’s mind as the woman continued. “But I think we have a problem.”
“The name is Bob,” the airline employee said. “And how can I help you?”
“Well, Bob, my seatmate still has his cell phone on,” she said.
Wes cracked a lid open. He definitely recognized the voice.
An outraged male, undoubtedly the rule-breaking neighbor, said, “Hey, look lady—”
“If having all electronics turned off means the difference between living and dying in a fiery crash,” the woman pushed on, “shouldn’t you have been confiscating them as we came on board?”
Full comprehension finally hit, and Wes sat up straighter in his seat. He’d recognize that enticingly husky, frustratingly persistent voice anywhere. Because Evie Lee Burling rarely stopped for anything, including red lights. But beneath the hint of sarcasm in her voice, Wes detected a note of panic.
“Surely that would be the safest plan?” she said, as if the idea made total sense.
And despite the determined tone and the sliver of fear beneath, the sexy voice resurrected never-quite-forgotten memories. The remembered desire shimmied down Wes’s back and settled in, as if determined to stay, competing with the fatigue for his total attention.
Bob sounded less than appreciative of Evie’s help. “Miss, you have to buckle your seat belt.”
Wes sympathized with the man. Evidently Dan’s free-spirited little sister hadn’t changed much since high school, offering her opinions freely.
Whether they were welcome or not.
“How do you know all the electronics have been powered down?” The panic in Evie’s voice grew a bit stronger. “I mean, I don’t think you should be leaving our safety up to the cooperation of the passengers.”
Amused by the soundness of her logic, Wes leaned in to look down the aisle, anticipating catching a glimpse of the woman he hadn’t seen in ten years. But all he could see was an irritated, balding passenger in the aisle seat five rows back—no doubt the cell-phone offender—and the less-than-stimulating view of the backside of Bob. From the airline employee’s posture, it was obvious he was irritated, too.
“I can assure you, Miss,” Bob said, “you are quite safe.”
The scoff that followed sounded unconvinced. “Really?” Evie said, and Wes was disappointed the seat in front of her blocked his view of her face. “We all know how inherently uncooperative most people are.” Her voice took on a reasonableness that communicated she was about to spell out her point. “Just look at Congress—”
“I’m sorry, Miss,” Bob said firmly, and Wes doubted the man’s blatantly annoyed voice was triggered by a need to defend the elected members on Capitol Hill. “You need to buckle your seat belt,” he said. “Now.”
Evie ignored the escalating tension and plowed on, the hint of panic growing thicker. “But I think I saw that lady over there with her iPod on.”
Wes bit back the smile. Evie never could keep her mouth shut. Wouldn’t take direction, either. As a matter of fact, the word contrary came to mind. Deliciously, delectably contrary. Not that Wes had ever done more than secretly appreciate the sassy mouth he had found both frustrating…and fascinating.
But Evie Lee had been off-limits from day one.
She went on. “You should check to make sure—”
“Seat belt,” Bob bit out before signaling his female colleague in the galley. “Marge, can you get this lady a drink?” He turned back to Evie, his smile tight, his voice deceptively smooth. “What would you like?”
The fear in Evie’s voice was briefly replaced with doubt. “I downed two drinks just to screw up the courage to board the plane, and I don’t think another one is a good idea—”
“I’m pretty sure the suit in 5A still has his laptop on, so I’m not really in a celebrating mood—”
“Vodka and tonic?” The attendant spoke in a tone that made it clear he was about two seconds away from grabbing a drink for himself, pulling the emergency slide, and shoving the annoying passenger out the door.
After a brief pause, Evie said, “Fine.”
Wes’s amusement abruptly died, and he suppressed a groan. Ever since he’d woken for this morning’s flight, he’d longed for more sleep. A few minutes of relaxation. After the whirlwind business trip, and being forced to celebrate his latest coup for his company with a champagne-guzzling client, all he wanted was to snooze in peace. Up until now, staying out of the current Evie Predicament—a phrase her family had coined years ago—had been easy to do. But her agreement to the vodka and tonic was sure to end in a disaster.
He knew that from personal experience.
Damn, he didn’t want to feel responsible. He didn’t want to get involved. He just wanted a couple of hours of shut-eye. But she was still the little sister of his best friend and former Harvard University roommate. Hell, Wes had practically grown up at the Burling house, especially during the terrible teen years stained by his father’s embezzlement scandal. Not only had Dan been the only friend to remain true throughout the ordeal, Wes also owed Evie’s brother an enormous debt for loyally signing on as his client during the infancy of Campbell Investments, Inc.
Not that Wes had a clue how to handle Evie Lee; the black sheep had perplexed her family for years.
Blowing out a breath, Wes stood and finally spied Evie, his gaze meeting her dark chocolate eyes. Long, brunette hair framed her misleadingly delicate features adorned with a small eyebrow piercing, and the vibration that had been pulsing through his body gained strength. Apparently her affection for grunge fashion hadn’t changed. She wore an ugly knit hat with a tiny brim in front and a white T-shirt with the words “Conformity: the surest form of death.”
The pretty, rebellious teen had matured into a beautiful maverick.
Wes stepped down the aisle to address Bob with a smile. “Light on the vodka, please,” he said. Ignoring the exasperating, and wholly inappropriate, attraction dogging him since his teens, he glanced at Evie meaningfully. “She doesn’t hold her liquor well.”
The soft snort from Bob as he passed by was barely audible, and Wes’s brow crinkled in restrained amusement at Evie’s expression, memories of his senior prom filling his mind. From the look on her face, it was obvious she was remembering, too.
Wide brown eyes locked with his as Evie hiked her chin a touch. And the wild, glossy waves of dark hair were just as tempting as he remembered. “Hello, Harvard Boy,” she said drily. “I see your pointless habit of bossing me around hasn’t changed.”
He bit back a smile. “Neither has your annoying need to be bossed.”
“And how do you figure that?”
He leaned an arm against the back of a seat. “I told you eleven years ago that you don’t handle your liquor well.”
Her balding neighbor glanced at Evie with concern.
“Lots of people drink too much at their first prom,” she said, pointedly ignoring her seatmate.
“Yes,” Wes said wryly. “But most don’t attend simply to protest the event.”
He suppressed a smile at the memory. Being elected Prom King had been a noteworthy turn of events that evening, but nothing compared to the memory of the attendees filing past a seventeen-year-old Evie in grunge attire holding a Down With the Monarchy sign.
“We fought a freakin’ war to overthrow royal oppression,” she said. “Why should we subject high school students to a royal court? Most people hate the exclusionary tradition.”
He lifted a brow. “And I’d venture to say that most prom-goers don’t end the evening vomiting on the chief of police’s desk as she’s telling the man to go to hell.”
Evie’s chin hiked higher, the sudden color on her cheeks bringing out the lovely olive tones of her mother’s distant Italian ancestry. She’d inherited the passion in spades.
And an impulsiveness that had worried her brother sick.
“I had every right to be on that sidewalk,” she said. “It was all just a…” She paused, as if searching for the right word. “It was simply a miscommunication.”
Wes couldn’t help it. He let out a laugh. “Oh, I think you communicated your displeasure well enough.”
During the pause that followed, Wes realized Evie had stopped arguing. Which was a change. But the spirited spark in her eyes remained the same—the very look that had set him on fire during his youth. Wes was never sure which had attracted him more, her beauty or her spunk. Whenever she was near, the air snapped with the charge of a pending electrical storm. He suspected her off-limits status had lent an air of the forbidden, increasing her appeal. And yet now, years later, the same prickle of energy spread up his spine and across his neck.
Staring at her lovely face, the buzz of awareness grew stronger, leaving him on edge. Feeling restless.
He’d warned the flight attendant to go light on the vodka. His duty was done. So he should be returning to his seat, catching up on the sleep he’d been craving for days. But it had been years since he’d had the pleasure of admiring her delicate features, the mesmerizingly smoky eyes, and the wide, impertinent mouth. So he allowed himself one more question before returning to his seat.
“What brings you to Boston?” he asked.
“My parents’ thirtieth wedding anniversary party.”
He’d received an invitation to the event himself, so the news wasn’t a surprise. That she’d decided to gowas.
He cocked his head. “I’m amazed you elected to make an appearance.”
Something flashed across her face, angst or an ache or a fragment of fear, and she dropped her eyes to her hands. “Of course I’m going,” she said. “They’re my parents.”
He patiently waited for her to return his gaze again, leaving his knowledge of her tumultuous history with her family unspoken. Fate had played a cruel joke on Evie Lee, the free-spirited nonconformist born into a traditional, upper-crust family heritage that reeked of old money. And she’d resented the silver spoon her family had repeatedly, and insistently, tried to stuff into her mouth.
“You haven’t been home in years,” he said.
She blinked, and Wes finally recognized the emotion brimming beneath her usual bravado. Although the set of her chin still screamed stubborn, there was a new hint of vulnerability in her eyes. Which only made her all the more alluring.
“My father bought me a ticket,” she said simply.
“First-class seats, too,” he said. “I’m surprised you didn’t insist on going coach.” When she didn’t respond he studied her distressed jeans, the holes offering an enticing glimpse of creamy skin. The white T-shirt clung to breasts he diligently ignored as he went on. “Maybe you’ve finally learned to appreciate the finer things in life.”
Evie let out a delicate snort. “I hate to disappoint you, but I haven’t changed. My affections still can’t be bought. And I refuse to participate in the Burling sibling race for my father’s approval.” Her expression briefly reflected the earlier fear in her voice. “I hate flying,” she said before letting out a quiet sigh. “I just figured if I puke in first class I’d spray fewer people.”
Evie’s neighbor bolted upright and into the aisle—forcing Wes to step back and make room lest the man land on his feet—and said, “Would you like to switch seats and sit with your friend?”
Every muscle in Wes’s body tensed. Briefly speaking with Evie was fine, but sitting next to the woman was a bad plan. How could he rest while seated beside the tempting, off-limits blast from his past?
Wes said, “Thanks, but that’s not necessary—”
“No problem at all,” the balding man said as he reached for his briefcase under the seat. He forced his way past Wes, not giving him time to protest further. “Wouldn’t want to get in the way of your reunion.”
Before Wes could say another word, the man plopped himself into Wes’s assigned spot, shoving his briefcase beneath the seat in front of him. It appeared that the mention of vomit had been the straw that cracked the camel’s back. Wes swung his gaze back to Evie, who was looking at him warily. And, for a moment, all he could see was the alluring swell of her breasts beneath the defiant shirt and the attractive flare of her hips. All features he’d regularly admired while growing up.
How could he get any sleep with that tempting body only an arm’s length away?
Unfortunately, his seat was now taken by a man who looked as if he’d sooner be tossed off the plane at ten thousand feet—minus a parachute—than be parked next to Evie.
Wes cocked an eyebrow. “I guess we’re sitting next to each other.”
The twisted smile she sent looked less than pleased. “Lucky me,” she said as Wes dropped into the seat and buckled his belt. “Now you can spend the next two hours engaging in one of your favorite pastimes.”
He simply hiked an eyebrow higher in question.
She shot him a brilliantly false smile. “Telling me what to do.”
Wes couldn’t restrain the ghost of a grin.
Her gaze clashed with his until the prerecorded message boomed over the PA system, beginning the routine safety instructions. Instantly, Evie’s stubborn expression faded. And Wes swore she lost a little color in her face. Marge, the female attendant, arrived with Evie’s drink and shot him a grateful look, as if he could somehow control the wacky passenger who was driving the staff crazy.
When had he been assigned caretaker of Evie Lee?
As Bob demonstrated how to put on the oxygen mask, Evie’s face grew paler. She tossed back the vodka and tonic as though a crash were imminent and she planned on feeling no pain on impact.
Evie handed her glass to the passing female attendant. “Another one, please.”
Marge’s smile was tight. “Of course.”
Wes’s heart sank. But the desperation in Evie’s face must have convinced the lady it was best to comply or risk ruining their chances for an on-time departure, all because of one uncontrollable, freaked-out passenger.
He sent Evie a look, ignoring the big Bambi eyes. “Don’t you think you should slow down?”
“I’m not a teen anymore, Wes. I know how to drink responsibly.”
“The odds of the plane crashing are incredibly slim.”
She blew out a breath. “If you were familiar with the year I just had, you’d be running over little old ladies to escape.”
Against his will, his heart softened a touch. “Tough one, huh?”
“You have no idea,” she murmured.
Actually, he did. Dan had told him about her breakup with her heavy metal guitarist boyfriend of ten years. Rumor had it, Chuck had cheated. Wes’s chest hitched in sympathy. Unconventional relationship or not, she’d remained a steadfast supporter of her boyfriend’s dreams until he’d succeeded, so it was a lousy way for things to end.
Evie seemed relatively calm until the announcer gave instructions in the event of a water landing and Bob placed the life vest over his head. Her face took on the color of the undead.
Marge returned with Evie’s refill, and the safety demonstration continued with the two methods for inflating the life vest, including the manual option in case the automatic system didn’t work. Evie muttered something about the inevitability of her equipment failing and tossed back her second drink without pausing to breathe.
And suddenly, despite himself, Wes felt sorry for the petrified Evie. “There aren’t any oceans between Minneapolis and Boston.”
“I’m sure there are plenty of lakes,” Evie said, clutching her empty glass as if desperate for a refill.
Unfortunately, the obliging Marge returned to exchange the empty glass for a full.
“The odds of a water landing are almost nil,” Wes tried again.
“Which is just far enough away from zero to make me nervous.” She sent Marge an overly bright smile before downing the entire contents of her glass.
Wes bit back the groan, sensing the situation slipping further out of control.
Safety demonstration complete, the flight attendants took their seats, and the plane taxied across the tarmac. A few seconds later and they were hurtling down the runway. The plane lifted off, pulling Wes’s heart and stomach more firmly into his body.
“You know, I’m an enlightened woman,” Evie said, her tongue sounding thick, her voice radiating sheer terror. But now, her words were slightly slurred.
“I’m sure you are,” he said with a sigh, gently tightening her seat belt.
“I change the oil in my car. Well, I did until it died on me. I squish my own spiders—”
Another stomach-dropping swoop occurred.
“I’ve always admired women who slay their own bugs,” Wes said, hoping to distract her.
She turned those heavily lined, heart-melting eyes toward him, her words sloppy. “I even take charge of my sexuality.”
Wes’s heart shifted to somewhere around the level of his groin. But this time, the adjustment had nothing to do with their rapid ascent and everything to do with the erotic images her words brought to his already primed mind.
He gripped his armrest, his pulse escalating. “I’m sure you do.” He was proud he managed his best businesslike voice, as if not aroused by her fantasy-inducing words. “You’ve never been the type to take direction,” he said, praying the woman wouldn’t take the current topic any further.
But apparently her bad luck was catching.
Her honest yet slightly glassy eyes on him, she said, “And I certainly don’t need a man to have an orgasm.”
The heated flush in Wes’s body burned higher, and he longed for a cool drink. He’d even partake of the dreaded champagne. Anything to douse the fiery blood now coursing through his veins. She studied him closely, making him shift uncomfortably in his seat, amused. Disturbed. And incredibly turned-on.
He cleared his throat and aimed for a noncommittal tone. “Good for you.”
And he wondered how his peaceful, worry-free commute had descended into the flight from hell. Being delegated keeper of the frustratingly tempting Evie Lee, unwillingly reassigned to sit next to the only woman he’d ever considered off-limits. Made worse by a fresh vulnerability that would worry her brother more. But it was a simple three-hour flight.
He could handle anything for a short three hours. Couldn’t he?
Maybe he’d get lucky and she’d pass out soon.
The color on her cheeks had nothing to do with embarrassment and everything to do with being tipsy. “I’ve always wondered what it would be like.”
“Sleeping with you.”
Wes froze, his libido pounding out its approval as Evie went on. “Tell me, Harvard Man,” she said. “Do you make love with your dress shirt on?”
Evie leaned closer, her breast pressed against his arm, short-circuiting his brain and sending his heart rate higher. Her scent was rich, like a decadent dessert, and her eyes simmered with a heat that was impossible to ignore. If she’d had full command of her faculties and wasn’t on the rebound—and had been anyone other than Dan Burling’s sister—he’d have been hard-pressed to refuse the offer in her gaze.
But sex with Evie couldn’t get any more wrong. He owed his friend that much. “Even in high school you had an authoritative air.” Her words were more slurred than ever, but her tone betrayed both awe and sympathy, as if his personality was something to be both admired and pitied. “So tell me, Mr. Responsible…”
Gaze now dreamy, she plastered her soft body against his. Wes’s heart paused along with her as he studied the liquid brown eyes and the beautiful, flushed face, waiting to hear what she’d say next. The words weren’t reassuring.
“Is there was a wild man beneath that do-right exterior?”
And suddenly, three hours with a tipsy Evie sounded like a lifetime in temptation hell.