Marco Carter would rather spend a day in a pit with snakes than an hour on a plane.
Yet here he was, boarding the transatlantic flight from Frankfurt back to his beloved Texas. He’d already survived a flight from Florence to Frankfurt, but this one was going to be much longer. Unbearably longer.
His gut tightened.
But as much as he dreaded flying, skipping his Italian grandmother’s eightieth birthday party was never an option for him. His heart squeezed in his chest. He preferred to attribute it to the surprise at the party, meeting a cousin he’d never known he had, than to his reluctance to be thousands of miles above the earth.
Anything could happen that high in the air, and there was nothing he’d able to do about it.
Marco stopped near his seat. A tall, dark blonde, dressed in black jeans and a gray T-shirt, was putting her backpack up on the shelf right above his place. She glanced back at him.
Marco’s heart skipped a beat. With her high cheekbones, large greenish-gray eyes framed by generous eyelashes, and full lips, the woman was beautiful. She looked to be in her late twenties, slim and fit. Oh, yes, he’d seen her waiting for the flight at the airport terminal and overheard her answering the security questions. Apparently, she was flying from Rome. An American with Italian roots, like him?
“Buongiorno, signorina.” Marco smiled. Sharing hours with an attractive neighbor made the flight look much better.
“Buongiorno.” Her strong accent was American, a southern drawl. Huh. Possibly Texan?
“May I help you with that?” Marco reached for her backpack, partly because he was a gentleman, partly because he needed to let people pass to their seats and settle into his own.
She smelled of pine needles, a refreshing scent that he didn’t expect but that somehow suited her. She shook her head. “It’s okay.”
“Raul, stop! That’s not our seat!” a female voice screamed farther along the plane.
The dark blonde winced, and the backpack slipped from her hands.
Marco did his best to catch it, but it grazed his shoulder, making him flinch from pain, and almost reached the ground before he got a hold of its strap. He harrumphed under her backpack’s weight and placed it in the overhead. It was shocking the backpack had passed as a carry-on. How did this slender beauty lift it so easily?
“What does she have in there, bricks?” he muttered in a low tone, resisting the urge to rub his aching shoulder.
“Not bricks. Stones. Thank you.” She slipped into her seat near the window, her lower lip trembling.
Why would anyone bring stones from Italy? And why did she become upset?
As intrigued as he was, Marco moved his suitcase into the overhead cabin as fast as he could. By now, he was holding up several passengers from getting to their seats.
An old man with white hair and glasses, dressed in a gray suit, stopped near him. Marco helped him put up his suitcase, thankfully much lighter than the woman’s backpack.
Marco shoved his small carry-on with his laptop under the seat in front of him, claimed his seat near the woman, and buckled in with a loud click. The old man in the suit took the seat near the aisle. The faint scent of tobacco drifted to Marco. The man put up a newspaper, as if he wanted to separate himself from the world.
Marco gave the passenger on the right his best smile. “I’m Marco.”
“Samantha.” She didn’t return his smile.
Hmm, his flirting skills must be rusty after not dating for years and dedicating his life to his career. By his thirtieth birthday a month ago, he’d been successful beyond his wildest expectations with the pizzeria chain he’d started right after getting his MBA. He’d often slept and eaten in his office, including weekends, going home only to shower and change, and had no time or desire for romantic entanglements.
Maybe he just wasn’t her type? The small thud of his heart told him he didn’t like that thought.
Well, ice queens weren’t his type, either. At nineteen, working his way through college as a waiter in a local diner, he’d fallen in love with an ice queen. She’d promptly dumped him for a rich guy who could give her diamonds and expensive trips Marco hadn’t been able to at the time.
Or maybe his neighbor had a boyfriend. She didn’t have a wedding ring on her finger, but the chances that a woman this attractive would be unattached were small.
“Sorry about your shoulder.” Samantha’s voice softened. “I hope it didn’t get hurt too badly.”
Marco straightened his back. “No, it’s fine.”
Liar, his shoulder responded with a throbbing pain.
Okay, so she wasn’t an ice queen. No matter. He was a workaholic, and no woman would accept the crazy tempo of his life.
Marco busied himself by checking emails from work on his phone and sending instructions to his assistant. He swallowed hard as he noticed the time. Takeoff would be soon.
Marco resisted the urge to grind his teeth. Only for Nonna, his stubborn but deep inside—sometimes very deep—loving grandma would he do this.
The plane was filling up fast, the level of noise increasing with people talking and shoving their things around. His stomach churned. He remembered his excitement of being on a plane when he’d been a kid, flying to visit his grandmother in Tuscany. But things had changed since his friend Philip’s plane had crashed last year. Badly scarred, his legs broken in several places, Phillip had survived. But he’d never been the same…
Marco should control this fear, especially considering he didn’t want to look like a coward to his pretty neighbor on the right.
He placed his hand on the armrest between the seats at the same time she did, and his fingers brushed hers. A wave of awareness ran through him. Her eyes widened, as if she felt the same, or at least felt something.
They both moved their hands back. Her eyes brightened and darkened, reminding him of the green fields near his Nonna’s villa.
The pilot announced takeoff, and Marco’s gut twisted further. His fingers wrapped around the armrest on the left.
Samantha turned to him. “I heard that, statistically speaking, flying is much safer than driving.” Apparently, she’d noticed his tension.
“I’d much rather be driving. Then I can control the situation.” Marco released the breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. Back in his office, he was always confident, sometimes to the point of arrogance. But he couldn’t forget the scar on his friend’s face, the pain in his eyes…
The flight attendant’s demonstration of how to use the oxygen mask and what to do in case of an emergency landing did nothing to soothe Marco’s frayed nerves. He gritted his teeth, loathing to reveal his weakness, especially to this woman. For whatever reason, he wanted to impress Samantha. He had a twinge of regret at wearing faded jeans, a simple T-shirt, and worn sneakers, his comfortable travel attire. People often judged others by their clothes, and he knew it too well.
He usually flew first-class, but Nonna had insisted on paying for the plane tickets for all her grandchildren, and he’d never let her pay for first-class. Besides, it wouldn’t matter if he was in first-class or economy if the plane…
Marco winced. Okay, it was best not to think about it.
The plane moved, jerked forward, and shook somewhat. Marco’s grip on the armrest tightened to the point his knuckles went white. This was torture.
Samantha leaned a little closer to him. “Flying never gets old for me. The feeling of being in the air, the freedom, the excitement.” Her voice did ring with excitement. Incredible. “I love flying.”
That made exactly one of them.
The plane tore off the ground, and the pressure in his ears increased.
Samantha placed a piece of gum in her mouth, adding a minty scent to the pine needles one. She handed the pack to him. “Would you like one?”
For a moment, he forgot about takeoff. He sure hoped it wasn’t a hint that his breath was foul.
“Chewing gum helps so your ears don’t get plugged from the change in the air pressure.” She gave him a half smile.
“Thanks.” He took the gum, opened the wrapper, and popped the white stick into his mouth. He chewed in earnest, enjoying its fresh taste.
Samantha had a point. They were airborne, but the pressure in his ears wasn’t nearly as bad as usual.
The airplane bell dinged. They could unbuckle their seat belts.
Marco breathed a tad easier.
“So, you like to control a situation?” The same half smile appeared on her lips as she clicked her seat belt open.
Marco nodded. He did, though at the same time, he encouraged his employees to take initiative to a point and awarded innovation. Why was it so easy for him to move millions of dollars but so difficult to trust the pilot to guide the airplane?
The old man near him started snoring underneath the newspaper. Most likely, he’d sleep through the entire flight.
Must be nice.
“What about you?” Marco studied Samantha.
Her eyes darkened. “I learned the hard way I couldn’t control anything.”
Marco tensed at the pain in her eyes.
Something had happened to her. Something very, very bad.
Silence lingered until he asked, “Are you from Texas?”
“My accent gave me away? I’m from Rios Azules, a small town in south Texas. I went to college in Austin and then stayed there for a while. I moved back to Rios Azules almost a year ago because my mother wanted me to.”
A small-town girl. Her clothes were simple, her conversation unpretentious, and she didn’t wear a speck of makeup. He liked that.
He liked… Samantha.
But it didn’t make any sense to become attracted to someone who lived half a state away from him. And Texas was a very large state. Besides, he lived and breathed his job, and romance wasn’t on his personal menu. His life was guided by logic and smart decisions, not feelings, and that was what had gotten him this far.
Samantha continued, “Mom wanted me to move back to Rios Azules after I got hurt and… my wedding didn’t happen.”
Marco frowned. It shocked and angered him that her fiancé had broken off the engagement because she’d gotten hurt. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
He said, “I’m not married, either. Not planning to.”
“I see. Is Houston your final destination?”
He shook his head. “No. I live in San Antonio.”
“Such a beautiful city… What kind of music do you like?”
“Classical. I play piano. Not professionally.”
Her face brightened. “I like classical music, too. I used to play violin. My dad taught me.”
Huh. Classical music wasn’t a popular choice these days. “Used to play violin?” He picked up on her use of the past tense. She probably didn’t have time for the violin anymore, like he didn’t for piano. He hadn’t played in years. But he’d love to play something for her someday. Maybe a rhapsody.
Whoa. He was getting ahead of himself.
“Yes. Used to. I… can’t anymore.” She looked away. “What kind of movies do you like?” she asked as if trying to change the topic.
“Me, too. Favorite food? Mine is pizza and beef lasagna.”
He perked up. “Wow. You just read my mind.” Samantha was totally his kind of girl.
Stop. No thinking like that.
The talk about food made his mouth water and caused him to remember the favorite scents of his childhood. Marinara sauce, herbs, breadsticks…
As if on cue, the scents of broiled chicken and spaghetti sauce drifted to him.
Soon a female flight attendant stopped near them. “What would you like? We have chicken and pasta.”
He opted for pasta while Samantha chose chicken. He touched his neighbor’s elbow on the left to wake him for dinner, but the man only snored louder.
Samantha bowed her head, and her lips were moving, as if she was saying something in her mind. Was she praying?
Marco’s heart warmed up at the sign of her being a Christian.
He whispered a prayer of his own. “Dear Lord, thank You for this food we’re about to eat and please bless it. Please make this trip safe and keep us safe in Your care. Thank You for all Your blessings. Amen.”
He tried his food. The pasta tasted rubbery, and the watered-down sauce was a far cry from the deliciousness he was used to. But the salad was fresh, and the small chocolate dessert tasted sweet and soft. Samantha’s chicken didn’t look too appetizing, either, but she was devouring it with gusto.
Flushing down his meal with orange juice, he imagined sharing dinner with Samantha, made from one of his family recipes, on the terrace, with a breeze playing with Samantha’s hair, her eyes sparkling in the candlelight…
He got carried away. He’d never see her again after this flight. The thought made the sweet taste of orange juice turn bitter in his mouth. Once the initial ice in her eyes had melted, she seemed to be genuine, lovely, and friendly.
However, she did have an aura of sadness around her, and he wondered what her story was.
“How is your food?” he asked Samantha.
“Okay. I’ve seen people existing on a small bowl of rice a day, if that much. I learned to appreciate any kind of food. This is not bad.” She put another piece of chicken in her mouth.
She seemed to swallow the piece, but suddenly her eyes widened, and she started coughing profusely. It looked like something had gotten stuck in her windpipe.
Eyes watering, she clutched her hands to her throat, as if unable to say a word, showing him the universal sign of choking.
Cold ran down his spine.
“Samantha, are you choking?”
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