SLADE BARON figured the blonde in the green suede suit had to know that her skirt fell open each time she crossed her legs.
They were fine-looking legs, too. Long, tanned and trim.
He was waiting out a weather delay in East Coast Air’s first-class lounge and he’d noticed her when she’d first entered, about half an hour ago. Every man in the room had noticed her. They’d have to have been neutered, to ignore a woman that desirable, especially when there was nothing else to look at besides the rain, pelting against the window.
As beautiful as she was, she looked completely businesslike, carrying a computer case in one hand and a carry-on in the other, the same as almost everyone else who was waiting out the summer storm. But then she sat down, right opposite Slade, took a book from the outside pocket of her carry-on, crossed her legs…and the proper-looking suede skirt revealed a slit that went straight up to her thighs.
She knew it, too. She crossed, and recrossed those long, gorgeous legs damned near every two minutes. And Slade was in just the right place to admire the view.
Every other man in hailing distance was doing the same thing. Why wouldn’t they? There was no point in staring out at the rain, or at the bolts of lightning that sizzled across the charcoal sky. Looking at the Departure Board wasn’t much better. Delayed, delayed, delayed, was what it said, what it would say until the storm passed over.
Slade had already gone through the notes for his presentation, read the Business section of the Boston Globe, phoned Edwin Dobbs at the Beaufort Trust in Baltimore. It was either watch Blondie or go nuts with boredom.
Blondie was the winner, hands down.
She looked up from her book, caught Slade’s frankly appraising glance and smiled. He smiled back. She put her head down again, flipped a page, then gently slid one leg against the other. The skirt fell open another couple of inches. Slade folded his arms, narrowed his eyes, settled back and let his imagination take over.
What did the skirt still conceal?
Black lace, probably. He’d known a lot of women in his thirty years, more than his fair share, his brothers said teasingly, and he was sure that Blondie was the black lace type. On the other hand, a delicate pink would look great against that tan.
Those long legs scissored, and there it was. Black lace, just a flash, but enough to make the guy sitting a couple of chairs away groan. The poor sap covered it well, changing the groan to a cough, but Blondie knew.
She lifted her head, looked straight at the guy, then at Slade. She smiled. He smiled. And when she repeated the I’m-wearing-lace-panties routine, Slade picked up his computer case and his carry-on bag, rose from his chair, started toward her…
And stopped. Just stopped, halfway across the floor.
The blonde’s brows lifted. She waited. Hell, he could feel everybody waiting, watching, trying to figure out what was going on. A man would have to be comatose not to have understood the invitation, and dead not to accept it.
Slade wasn’t comatose or dead, but he was going to pass. He hadn’t known it until a second ago but now he did, the same as he knew it was his only choice. Memory had deadened the pleasant sense of anticipation and turned it to anger. Not at the blonde, or the weather.
Slade’s anger was at himself.
Frowning, he strode past the blonde, who looked after him with a sigh of disappointment. He went past the reception desk where some bozo with a loud voice and a red face was bitching about missing his flight, out the door and into the general waiting area.
Ahead, through the windows, he could see flight 435 to Baltimore squatting beside its gate like some big, wet gray bird. People milled around. It was noisy, crowded and not even the air conditioning could keep up with the heat and humidity.
Slade kept on walking, straight through the building, until he reached the end of the corridor. He stopped, stared out the window again and told himself to stop being an idiot.
“It was eighteen months ago,” he muttered. “A year and a half. And that’s as good as forever, in any man’s life.”
A muscle knotted in his cheek. He put his computer and his carry-on at his feet, pulled his cellular phone from his pocket and called his office.
“It’s me,” he said when his secretary answered. “Any messages?”
There were none but he hadn’t really expected any, considering that he’d phoned only half an hour or so earlier. He disconnected, started to punch in the number for the Beaufort Trust but stopped when he realized he’d just done that only a little while ago, too. He picked up his computer, started to look for a public phone and changed his mind. There were probably no urgent e-mails, either.
He took the nearest chair, sighed and turned on the machine.
Solitaire would eat up some time. It always gave him a laugh, how many well-dressed business types sat hunched over their computers on a long flight, playing endless hands of the game.
He could be industrious, call up his designs for the new world headquarters the Beaufort Conglomerate wanted him to build in Baltimore.
Or he could just stop being an idiot and deal with reality.
Slade frowned, switched off the computer and put it away.
What had happened in Denver was old news. There was no reason all those memories should have come flooding back. The blonde with the slit skirt was nothing like Lara, nothing at all. And even if the situations were similar—the weather delay, the first-class lounge, a man and a woman just looking to kill some time—even if all that was the same, it wouldn’t have ultimately ended the same way.
A year and a half later, he wouldn’t be sitting around, remembering what had happened, and wondering why in hell he should still be remembering it at all.
“Dammit, Baron,” Slade said, through his teeth.
A man standing nearby shot him a funny look, picked up his suitcase and moved away. Slade couldn’t blame him. Guys who sat around airports, looking out at the weather and talking to themselves, were guys sane people avoided.
He wondered what the man with the suitcase would think if he walked over and said, Listen, pal, there’s nothing wrong with me. It’s just that I picked up this babe a long time back. We had a night of mind-blowing sex, and I still can’t get her out of my head.
Which was crazy. One hundred percent, loony-tunes crazy. Because the whole incident had been nothing. A meaningless one-night stand. Meaningless, Slade thought, and stared out at the rain.
But it wasn’t rain he saw. What he saw, in his mind, was snow.
eavy and thick, each flake the size of a five-cent coin. Snow had begun falling from the leaden Colorado sky to blanket the field on that December morning. His plane had made an unscheduled landing because another storm had put a monkey wrench into the schedule of every airline flying east of Denver.
He’d been sitting out the delay in yet another handsome, anonymous, first-class lounge.
An hour delay, the voice over the loudspeaker kept repeating, even after the hour had stretched to two and then three. The storm hadn’t been expected but it wasn’t anything to worry about. Things would be back on schedule as fast as East Coast Air could manage.
Except the snow kept falling, and the sky got darker and darker. And Slade’s impatience grew.
He was heading home to Boston after a long weekend’s visit to his brother in California. It had been a great couple of days filled with laughs and volleyball along the beach outside Travis’s Malibu house. Trav, dependable, as always had even lined up Saturday night dates that had been world-class.
Now, Slade had thought, sitting in the lounge and stewing, now, he was going to ruin that good time by spending Sunday evening snowbound, trapped at Denver International.
He’d sighed, told himself to stop being a jerk. The freaky storm was nobody’s fault. He was a pilot, had been since he was a kid. He, of all people, knew that sometimes there was no arguing with the weather.
The key to getting through this without going nuts was finding something to do. He’d already checked his e-mail. He’d read Time from cover to cover. What next? he thought wearily…
And then he saw the woman sitting across from him.
He figured she must have come into the lounge in the last few minutes, while he was reading. Otherwise, he’d have noticed her the same way every man in the room had noticed her. They were all trying to be casual, giving her cautious looks from behind their newspapers, but Slade had never believed in being cautious about anything.
Besides, a woman like this deserved a man’s complete attention.
Her hair was somewhere between gold and red. Strawberry blond, probably, but it seemed a tame way to describe a color that reminded him of early autumn mornings. He couldn’t see her eyes—she was looking down at the portable computer in her lap—but he had the feeling they’d be a deep blue. She was wearing what he’d heard women refer to as a man-tailored suit, very proper and demure, but it didn’t look all that demure on her, not even the skirt, which hung primly to her crossed knees.
He could sense her irritation as she poked at her computer. It was the same brand as his, he noticed. She said something under her breath, looked up—and he saw not just her eyes, as deep a blue as he’d imagined, but a face as spectacular as any that had ever been in his dreams.
Slade didn’t hesitate. He picked up his things, walked the few feet to her and grinned.
“Here you go, darlin’,” he said.
The look she gave him would have turned the snow outside to ice. “I beg your pardon?”
He smiled, gave the guy sitting in the next chair a pointed look and nodded his thanks when the man fidgeted a couple of seconds, then got up and moved off.
“I,” Slade said, settling into the newly vacated seat, “am the answer to your prayers, Sugar.”
Her eyes turned even colder. “I am not named ‘Sugar.”’ She looked him up and down, her pretty mouth curling with disdain. “You’re out of your league, cowboy. If those boots of yours are made for walking, you’d better let them walk.”
“Ah,” he said wisely, “I see. You think this is just an old-fashioned pickup.”
“My goodness.” The woman batted her lashes. They were dark, thick and impossibly long. “And you’re going to try to tell me it isn’t, is that right?”
Slade sighed, shook his head, opened his computer case and took out his spare battery.
“It’s painful to be misjudged, Sugar.” He held out the battery, his expression one of wide-eyed innocence. “You need a battery for your computer and I just happen to have an extra. Now, does that sound like a pickup line to you?”
She looked back at him for what seemed forever. Just when he thought she was going to send him packing, he saw the corner of her mouth twitch.
“Yes,” she said.
“Well, you’re right,” he said. “But you have to admit, it’s creative.”
She laughed, and he laughed, and that was the way it all began.
“Hi,” he said, and held out his hand. “I’m Slade.”
She hesitated, then took his hand. “I’m Lara.”
Lara. It seemed just right for this woman. Soft, feminine, yet with a certain strength to it. It was a pleasant contradiction in terms, just like her handshake, which was strong, almost masculine. Still, her fingers were long and delicate, and her hand seemed lost in his.
A tiny electric jolt passed between them.
“Static electricity,” she said quickly, and pulled back her hand.
“Sure,” Slade said, but he didn’t think so. And, from the flush that rose in her lovely face, he didn’t think she thought so, either.
“I couldn’t help but overhear your, uh, your conversation.” He smiled. “The one you were having with yourself. I didn’t actually hear what you called your dead battery, but I have a pretty good imagination.”
She laughed. “I’m afraid I wasn’t being very polite.”
“I’m serious about giving you that extra battery.”
“Thanks, but I can do without it.”
“Well, I’ll lend it to you, then. So you can finish up whatever you were doing.”
“It’s the ‘whatever’ part that I was going for this time.” She smiled, and he told himself he’d never known that a woman’s smile could light a room until now. “I was going to play a game of solitaire.”
Slade grinned. “Computer solitaire. The wonder of the age. One card or three?”
“One, of course,” Lara said primly. “Timed, with Vegas rules.”
“The deck with the palm trees?”
She laughed. “Uh-huh. I like that little face that appears, the one that grins when you least expect it.”
“Try getting a regular deck of cards to grin at you,” Slade said, and they both laughed and began to talk, bouncing from topic to topic as strangers usually do, except he wasn’t really sure what he said, or what she said.
He was too busy watching the play of emotion on her face when she laughed, the way she had of widening her eyes when he said something amusing. He was too busy listening to her voice, which was husky and soft and sexy as hell, even though he had the feeling she didn’t know it was sexy any more than she knew that little way she had of pushing her hair back from her ear was starting to make him have to curl his hand into a fist to keep from reaching out and doing it himself.
Up close, the suit was still demure but now that he could see a hint of the body beneath it, he knew he’d never think of a suit the same way again. And her scent. Lilacs, he thought. Or maybe lilies of the valley.
“…don’t you think?” she said, and Slade nodded and said yes, he definitely did, and hoped he was saying yes to the right thing, because he hadn’t heard the question. He told himself he was being ridiculous, to get his jaw off the floor and his brain into gear.
“That’s why I think of it as The Dead Battery Conspiracy,” Lara said. “You know. You do all the right things, keep their batteries charged—”
Oh, yes, Slade thought, while he kept smiling like an idiot, yes, indeed, there was nothing like keeping your batteries charged.
“You turn them on carefully—”
Carefully? Hell, he didn’t want to be turned on carefully. He wanted to scoop her up, drag her off into a dark corner and ravish that mouth and that body.
“—but they don’t work. They never do, when you want them to.”
“No,” Slade finally said, and cleared his throat and changed the topic before he made a spectacle of himself in public.
They talked some more. Or, ra
ther, he talked. She just listened. After a while, he noticed a strange look on her face. He wondered if he was boring her but then he realized it wasn’t that. She looked…contemplative. Yeah, that was the word. She smiled in all the right places but he had the feeling she was weighing the consequences of something important, and that whatever it was, it was beyond his comprehension.
It gave him a funny feeling, one he didn’t like. So he stopped, in the middle of a sentence, and said, “How about some coffee?”
Lara blinked. She looked back at the coffee bar, then at him.
“Yes,” she said finally. “Yes, I’d like that.”
He rose from his chair. She did, too. They walked to the rear of the lounge, poured some coffee, sat down on a small sofa in a corner and went on with their conversation about inconsequential things. Weather, and flying, and how some airports were better than others, but all the while they were chatting, he knew it was only a cover for what was really happening between them.
They were turning each other on.
That little shot of electricity came again, when he refilled her cup. Their hands brushed, and the resultant spark made them jump.
“Whoops,” she said, with a little laugh, “one of us needs to be grounded before we go up in flames.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Slade said, with a smile. “Going up in flames might be fun.”
Their eyes met and held, and then she looked away and they talked about carpets and static electricity, about everything but the tension stretching between them.
He told himself it was nothing unusual. He was a man who enjoyed women. He always had, ever since the divorced wife of a neighboring rancher back home in Texas had decided to give him herself as a gift for his sixteenth birthday. He liked women, liked the way they sounded and looked and moved. And women liked him. So yeah, he’d sat in a bar, or gone to a party, he’d looked at a woman and she at him and bam, the connection had clicked and the both of them had known they were going to end up in bed together.
But, dammit, this was different. Who was he trying to kid? He wanted this woman with a need that was almost painful. He wanted her in his arms, wanted the scent of her arousal on his skin, the taste of her on his tongue, the hot wetness of her closing around him.