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She had just one wish for the holiday. Survival. The aircraft jolted and shook like a tilt-a-whirl gone wild. Clutching the armrests in a white knuckled grip, Lacey Chandler braced her feet against the seat in front of her and prayed. When a sudden air pocket sent the plane in a free fall through space, a squeal of sheer terror tore from her throat.
She stared at the man in the seat next to her. Lowering his newspaper, he regarded her with a raised brow. Even in her petrified state, she couldn’t help noticing his rugged good looks. She’d been sneaking glances since the plane took off in Los Angeles.
Forcing her clenched teeth apart, she answered, “I’m just peachy for someone about to die.”
His firm lips tilted up at the corners. “A little turbulence isn’t going to kill anyone.”
Of course he wasn’t afraid. A camouflage print shirt hugged shoulders so broad they took up more than his fair share of the seat while the matching military issue pants strained across his thighs. Dark brown eyes held a depth of experience she couldn’t begin to understand—and didn’t want to. He probably ate terrorists for breakfast.
Overhead, the fasten seatbelt sign lit up, and a loudspeaker crackled. “This is your captain speaking. Looks like the weather is growing worse, folks. Please return to your seats and buckle up.”
“Worse? How can it get worse than this?” She bit her lip.
A hard, calloused hand closed over hers and squeezed before pulling away. “I’m sure we’ll fly out of the storm in no time.”
A tingle of warmth shot through her. Though she generally followed the old adage about not speaking to strangers, talking might take her mind off her imminent demise. She hesitated, eyeing him from the top of his closely shorn head, past prominent cheek bones and a hard chin, to the muscled forearms crossed over the newspaper resting on his lap. Though her seatmate was probably only a few years older than she was, late twenties she guessed, he didn’t look young or harmless—anything but. Still, she needed a distraction.
“Are you in the army?”
Not very chatty. She tried again. “Going home on leave for Christmas?”
“Going home, period. I just finished my second tour in Afghanistan. It was enough.”
“Oh.” The plane bounced, jostling her into those broad shoulders. “Thanks.”
“Putting yourself in harm’s way for me.”
He shrugged. “I did what I was told, nothing more, nothing less.” The warmth in his chocolate eyes faded.
Whatever he was remembering obviously wasn’t pleasant. Maybe I’m not the only one who needs a distraction. Prying her fingers from the armrest, she held out her hand. “I’m Lacey Chandler.”
His grip was firm. Comforting. “Reece Hartman. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Likewise. Where’s home?”
He hesitated a moment before answering. “My parents live in a suburb of Denver.”
“Yeah? So does my grandmother. That’s where I’m headed. My mom and dad are on a cruise in Greece. They’ve been saving for it forever, and my brother is spending the holidays with his in-laws.” She was babbling. She knew it but couldn’t stop. The plane rocked from side to side then shook like a dog coming out of water. Her voice rose as she braced her feet. “It’ll be just me and my grandma this year.”
His big hand covered hers again. “Take a deep breath and try to relax. We’re going to be fine. Honest."
Looking into those bottomless eyes, she almost believed him. Almost. “How can you be so sure?”
“Because I’m a pilot. I’ve flown combat missions in all sorts of weather. Storms like this one are nothing out of the ordinary.” He frowned. “The landing could be a little tricky, though, if the temperatures keep dropping.”
“I feel a whole lot better now. Instead of nose diving into a mountain, we’ll crash on the runway. That’s a much better option. Easier to identify the bodies.”
His laugh rolled across her senses and curled her toes.
“You’re a pessimistic little thing.”
“Nope, just realistic. Numbers don’t lie, and I have a feeling we’re about to become a statistic.”
“Numbers, huh? You don’t look like an accountant.”
She narrowed her eyes and forgot all about the pitching plane for about three seconds. “What do accountants look like?”
“Old and boring, not young and blonde and cute.”
“Talk about a stereotype!”
Before she could fully launch into a lecture, the loudspeaker crackled. “Change of plan folks. We have freezing rain in Denver, and they’ve closed the airport.”
Groans and the buzz of conversations erupted throughout the plane. This couldn’t be happening. It was Christmas Eve for God’s sake.
“Never fear, I have a plan B. We’re detouring to Cheyenne. That’s in Wyoming, people. Sorry for the inconvenience.” The speaker squawked and went silent.
“The guy’s a regular comedian.” Reece shrugged his shoulders and smiled, his teeth gleaming white against his tan. Slowly the smile faded. “It isn’t the end of the world, Lacey. You aren’t going to cry, are you?”
“Of course not.” She sniffed and blinked. “I’m just disappointed. It’s been a long day, and I know my grandma went to the trouble of making a big dinner.”
“The drive will only take a couple of hours, give or take, depending on the roads.” He glanced at the big, black watch strapped to his wrist. “It’s only four now. Once we’re on the ground, you’ll call her and tell her you’ll be a little late.”
She nodded. They were silent as the plane bumped and jolted then slowly began its descent into Cheyenne. Gray clouds and flakes of snow streamed by the tiny window. Clutching the armrests, she closed her eyes as the engines roared. A warm hand closed over her clenched fist, and some of the tension drained out of her. When the wheels touched down on the runway, she sighed in relief.
“Safe and sound.”
She opened her eyes and looked deep into his. “I guess I got my wish.”
A slow grin spread. “Told you we would.”
“A man of your word, I appreciate that.” She rose on shaking legs and pulled her carry-on bag from under the seat. “I won’t say it’s been a pleasure meeting you, Reece. More like an adventure.”
Standing, he brushed against her in the confined space and put a steadying hand on her back. Warmth coursed through her.
“I disagree. It has been a pleasure.” His eyes never strayed from her face. “Have a merry Christmas, Lacey.”
“You have a merry one, too, Reece.” With a final backward glance, she walked down the aisle and off the plane.