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When Carey Browne stepped out onto West 34th Street she stopped in surprise. Not that she should have been surprised, she said to Ben, who was standing beside her holding at least half-a-dozen Macy's bags thanks to her indulgence in a sudden frenzy of last-minute shopping; last night's report from the Weather Channel had shown a shocking weather system heading in from the Midwest and they'd said there was a likelihood of snow on the East Coast. It was just that despite the bitingly cold morning air which had caused their breath to hang in little puffs in front of them when they left the hotel, there hadn't been any signs of snow as they walked into the store over an hour earlier. Now it was falling in a slow-motion frenzy of heavy white flakes and was at least an inch thick on the sidewalk.
"Sorry," said Ben, who'd told her that the Weather Channel wasn't always accurate and that January snowstorms often blew themselves out. "I wanted to be optimistic."
She linked her arm through his and snuggled closer to his fur-lined leather jacket. "It doesn't matter," she told him. But she frowned because if the snow continued falling at this rate their flight was sure to be delayed. She did some mental calculations and hoped that even if they were delayed, she'd still manage to get back to Dublin in time for her shift the following day. If worse comes to worst she could always phone, let them know she'd be late and get someone to cover for her. But she didn't want to phone Ireland because, if she did, she'd have to tell them everything that had happened in the last few days, and she wasn't ready to do that yet. She'd hardly got her head around it herself. Besides, she wanted to tell them face to face.
"We'd better leave ourselves a little extra time to get to the airport," she told Ben as they walked down the street, carrier bags bumping against their legs. "I've never been here in a snowstorm before, but whenever it snows at Dublin there's always problems with people getting delayed."
"I do my best to be optimistic because you always look on the worst side." He grinned at her. "I bet you anything we get away on time."
"You think?" There was amusement and challenge in her voice.
"Five dollars," he told her. "It's all the cash that I've left since you cleaned me out in the store."
She looked at him penitently, but her brown eyes twinkled. "I couldn't help it. The discounts were so utterly brilliant that those clothes just begged to be bought."
"I know," he said. "But to max out both your credit cards and all of your cash..."
"Give me a break!" she cried. "I didn't do it all today."
He laughed. "I know, I know. New York, Las Vegas, New York -- what's a girl to do? And," he added, "there were some unexpected expenses."
She flung her arms round him and kissed him on the lips. "I loved the unexpected expenses," she murmured. "And I love, love, love you."
"I love you too," he said.
"Sure?" she whispered.
"Sure I'm sure."
"I've never been more certain of anything in my life." He brushed melting snowflakes from the mass of nut-brown corkscrew curls that framed her face and from the pair of tiny, dark-rimmed glasses perched on her nose. "You're a wonderful woman, and you'll certainly be the best dressed woman in town when we get home if today's spree is anything to go by -- what's not to love?"
"I don't want you to think that we've made a terrible mistake," she told him. "And I'm sorry about the shopping. Really I am."
He grinned. "I don't think that I've made a terrible mistake -- at least I managed to keep my credit card number to myself!"
"I hope so."
"'Cos if you really loved me you'd definitely give me your credit card number." She smiled teasingly at him.
"I'm hoping our love transcends mere money," he told her sternly. "All the same, I'd better take you away from the temptation of the stores. Besides, we should get a move on if you want to pack and leave earlier than we planned."
He put his arm round her waist and they hurried back towards Penn Station and their hotel. A whirlpool of people and their luggage took up most of the lobby, getting bigger all the time as more and more of them hurried in from the snow-filled streets, brushing the huge white flakes from their shoulders and stamping their feet with the cold.
Carey looked at the throng. "Our car had better turn up," she remarked. "We haven't a hope in hell of getting a cab with that lot lurking round."
"You're being pessimistic again," said Ben cheerfully. "You don't have to worry -- I've got it under control."
"My hero." She looked at him in mock-adoration.
"What I haven't got under control is the packing," he informed her. "Everything has to be crammed into the cases, and it seems to me that we have finite space but infinite purchases to put in it."
She made another face at him and followed him to the bank of elevators. He pressed the button for the thirty-sixth floor and she leaned against his shoulder as the elevator moved upwards.
"I still can't believe it," she murmured. She lifted her head and looked into his eyes. "I believed it when we were in Vegas and when it was all happening, but now, getting ready to go home, it doesn't seem real."
"It's real all right," said Ben. "Don't for one minute think you can get out of it."
"I don't." She turned to him and kissed him again. "I don't want to get out of it."
The elevator stopped on the twenty-first floor, but the couple who were waiting decided not to interrupt the pair who were already occupying it. Carey and Ben were too engrossed in their kiss to notice them anyway.
"Have you ever done it in an elevator?" he asked as the doors closed again.
"Would you like to?"
She giggled. "Of course I would. But I rather have the feeling we'll be at the thirty-sixth floor before we can really get down to it. Don't you think?"
"Yes," he admitted. "Though I can be very quick, you know."
"I don't know whether that's a good thing or not!" Her chuckle was warm and happy as she nuzzled against his neck.
The elevator stopped and the chime told them that they were at their floor.
"Oh well." Carey straightened her jacket. "Another time perhaps."
"On the plane," suggested Ben. "That Mile-High Club thing. Have you ever done that?"
"What kind of sex-life d'you think I've had?" she demanded. "I went to a convent school, for heaven's sake."
"Convent girls." He sighed. "Always looking so demure in those uniforms. But we all knew what little vixens you were really."
She shoved him in the small of the back, then followed him down the narrow corridor to their room. Ben opened the door and both of them groaned as they looked at their already full luggage.
"We'll never manage to pack this lot in as well," she wailed as she peered into the Macy's bags. "Why didn't you stop me?"
"I tried. I tried. But you were like a woman possessed."
"Rubbish," she said robustly, and stretched out across the bed.
"Don't do that," said Ben.
"Disport yourself like that," he told her. "You're taking my mind off the task in hand."
"Sorry," she said, though her tone belied her words. "I suppose I shouldn't take your mind off the task because if we do miss the damned plane, I'll be fired when we eventually get home."
"We won't miss it. It'll leave on time and you won't be fired," said Ben. "Anyway, you told me that there's always someone to cover for you."
"There is," she told him. "But I don't want to let them down. It's a team, you know?"
"I know." He kissed her on the nose. "It's nice to know that underneath that ditzy exterior is a responsible adult."
"Well..." Ben laughed and then groaned as she caught him by the waistband of his jeans. "Even still, we probably don't have time to -- "
"Of course we do," she interrupted him. "I'm on a roll right now. I don't want it to end."
"It won't," he promised her. "You know it's only just beginning."
The driver of the limousine which Ben had booked to take them to the airport was making better time than they'd expected. But the snowfall was now even heavier, and deep white drifts had piled up at the side of the roads. The driver left the freeway and took a route through the suburbs which, he told them, would get them there faster, though Ben looked skeptical.
"I'm not sure I want to get there faster," murmured Carey. "This is probably the first and last time I'll ever travel in a limo. The least I can do is enjoy the experience." She stretched out across the rear seat and put her feet on Ben's lap. "Thank you for surprising me with this. I thought it was just going to be an ordinary car." She smiled at him. "And I know that we should probably be doing all sorts of sexy things back here, but you have me utterly worn out. What would be nice would be a little foot massage. I'm wrecked from all the walking around this morning."
Ben eased her tan leather boots from her feet and began to rub her soles.
"I just might keep you." She sighed with pleasure. "I really might."
They arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare. Ben tipped the limo driver lavishly and then followed Carey to check in. According to the clerk, flights were still departing on schedule.
"Haven't heard of any delays yet," he said cheerfully as he handed them their boarding cards.
"You see?" said Ben. "No need for all that pessimism earlier. I think that secretly you want to stay a little longer. That's why you're hoping the weather will get worse."
"Sod off," she said amiably. "It's still a five-dollar bet."
They had coffee and doughnuts, then strolled to the gate, where a knot of people were already waiting. They sat side by side, Carey skimming through a copy of Vanity Fair while Ben read USA Today. They both looked up when a small squadron of stewards and stewardesses walked through the gate.
"Hand over the money," said Ben.
"It has to depart on time," Carey told him. "The crew arriving means nothing."
"That means within fifteen minutes of the time on our ticket, doesn't it?"
She laughed. "Oh, OK."
"I'm in the money," he said, looking at his watch.
Five minutes later they announced the flight. Carey asked the stewardess who was collecting the boarding cards if it was really possible they'd make an on-time departure.
"Of course," said the woman confidently.
Carey shrugged and followed Ben along the airbridge. Her teeth worried at her lower lip. She really didn't want to miss her shift the following day. The original flight time had scheduled them to arrive at Dublin Airport at six o'clock in the morning. Plenty of time, she'd thought, for her to get home, grab some extra sleep and arrive at the air traffic control center, where she worked as a controller, by two o'clock. She knew that she could sleep during the flight, but it wasn't the same thing. She followed Ben down the aisle and decided that if they were badly delayed she'd get the captain to let Dublin know. He wouldn't mind.
They found their seats on the aircraft and stowed their cabin bag in the overhead bin (plus a stuffed Macy's carrier, the contents of which would simply not fit in the rest of the luggage). Then they settled into their seats and Ben peered out of the window.
A Delta plane had just touched down and was rolling along the runway.
"You see?" said Ben smugly. "Bet he's on time, no problem."
Carey shrugged. "They'll have to de-ice us," she said. "That'll take twenty minutes."
"De-icing time doesn't count," said Ben. "Once we've moved from the stand, that counts."
Carey pursed her lips. "OK, OK," she said. "But only because you blew all your money on that limo." She made a face at him. "I loved it, I really did."
He smiled but then looked at her seriously. "And I love you."
"I know," she whispered. "I love you too."
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is the captain."
They both sat up straight.
"Bad news, I'm afraid. The weather is getting worse, and we have to allow additional time for some aircraft to land before we obtain clearance for departure. We're third in the queue for de-icing at the moment, so it looks like we'll be on the stand for a little while longer. Apologies for the delay -- we'll keep it as brief as we can."
Carey turned to Ben triumphantly. "My five dollars," she demanded.
"Bloody hell," he said. "Are you always going to be right at the last minute?"
"Always," she said positively.
"Great." Ben sighed as he handed her the five-dollar bill. "I'm just beginning to wonder what I've let myself in for."
An hour later the captain made the announcement which Carey had both anticipated and feared. Due to the heavy snow, the airport had closed. They expected flights to resume again in two to three hours.
"Three hours!" Ben looked at Carey in horror. "I really don't want to hang around an airport for three more hours."
"You won't be hanging around the airport," she told him. "They won't let us off the plane."
She shook her head. "Once we're boarded we can't get off again."
"What about deep vein thrombosis?" demanded Ben. "I can't sit folded into this seat for an extra three hours."
Carey grinned. "That's what you get for being six feet tall," she told him. "And you won't get deep vein thrombosis simply by sitting around. I didn't realize you were a hypochondriac!"
"I'm not," he retorted indignantly. "Just cramped."
"I know," she said. "I sympathize, I sympathize, I really do. I don't want to sit here either."
He looked at her. "What are you going to do about work?" he asked her.
She shrugged. "Wait and see. I thought of asking them to let Dublin know I'd be late, but if we really do depart in three hours I'll still have time."
"You'll be exhausted," he told her.
"I'll be fine."
"Don't you have to be at the peak of physical condition all the time?" he asked. "After all, people's lives depend on you."
"Oh shut up." She grinned at him. "I'm always in peak physical condition."
"That's true." He nodded. "You've proved it over the last few days. Besides, I thought that from the first moment I saw you."
"No you didn't," she said. "You thought I was going to throw up."
"That wasn't the first moment I saw you," he told her. "The first moment was in the departure lounge at Dublin. You were reading the newspaper and you looked fantastic. You have a great profile. I only thought you were going to throw up during the flight."
"I'm still not sure that wasn't an excuse for putting your arm round me," she said. "I was never going to throw up."
"You looked a bit green," he said. "Honestly."
Her eyes sparkled. "I'm glad I didn't have to go to the bother of being sick to make you put your arm round me."
"Don't tell me you were faking it."
"No." She shook her head. "I had awful indigestion. But that was all it was."
"Or an ulcer," he added.
"Even if I had an ulcer, it would've been worth it," she told him. "I don't know what else I could have done to get you to notice me."
"You didn't need to do anything," he said. "I was always going to put my arm round you. Sooner or later."
She smiled. It was hard to believe that it was less than a week since he'd first put his arm round her. It was already hard to imagine what her life had been like without him.
She hadn't originally intended to go to New York at all. She hadn't even been thinking of time off. But she was due some leave and Gina, her closest friend in the Irish Aviation Authority and with whom she shared a house in Swords, had suggested that Carey see if there were any available seats on a flight to the States because then she could come to the party Ellie Campion was giving in Manhattan. Ellie had been a stewardess for fifteen years, but she'd recently met and become engaged to a Wall Street investment banker and was dying to show him off. The Wall Street banker wanted to show Ellie off too, and not having had a social function in his apartment for some time, he was keen to pull out all the stops. So he'd told her to ask as many people as she could.
Carey didn't know many stewardesses, since staff in the Aviation Authority didn't often get to meet people in the airlines themselves, but Ellie and Gina had gone to school together and they occasionally went out with Carey in a threesome -- or even a foursome when Finola Hartigan, an air traffic controller like Carey, also came along. Carey hadn't been to New York in seven months, even though it was one of her top three shopping destinations. But she hadn't planned anything special for her time off either, and the idea of going to NYC for some fun was suddenly very appealing. She'd always known, she told Gina, that Ellie Campion would land someone rich and handsome someday. Ellie was the adman's dream of an air hostess -- tall and thin, with honey-gold hair, sapphire-blue eyes, and bee-stung lips. Now that she'd landed her banker, she was giving up her job and moving to the States to live in his extravagant and phenomenally
expensive Upper East Side apartment. And although her wedding would be in Dublin, Ellie wanted everyone to come to the States first. To brag, Gina had told Carey, but they agreed, reluctantly, that Ellie had something worth boasting about. After all, some stewardesses might be content with marrying pop stars or B-list celebrities and getting their names in HELLO! magazine, but Ellie was classier than that. Bill Stannick was worth millions and nobody even knew about it. Much better, Carey said, to be wealthy and not have anyone know about it. Gina had nodded and sighed and looked at the engagement ring on the finger of her left hand. Her fiancé, Steve, was a really nice guy and she was madly in love with him, but it would've been nice if he had even a tenth of Bill Stannick's money!
Due to the timing of her shifts Carey hadn't been able to fly out with the other girls, but she was quite happy to travel on her own. And even though air travel wasn't everyone's favorite method of transport anymore, she still loved it. It was, and always had been, a part of her life.
She'd noticed Ben while they were waiting at the gate. He was the sort of guy you couldn't help noticing -- tall, athletic, with a lightly tanned face and fair hair which was in need of a trim. The slightly too-long hair softened his angular features and emphasized his dark blue eyes. Carey looked away from him before he caught her staring. Anyway, she told herself as she checked her bag to ensure she had some dollars and her credit cards, she wasn't interested in tall, athletic men who were exuding sex-appeal. She wasn't interested in men at all right now. She was taking one of her regular breaks from them, especially ones who were too attractive for everyone else's good.
Much to her surprise (because she normally got the seat next to the overweight man whose girth expanded onto passengers sitting beside him), she found herself sitting next to him on the plane. She didn't usually talk to her fellow travelers, but he smiled at her and said hello and offered to put her bag in the overhead bin for her. She thanked him as he squeezed it into the cramped space and smiled when he made a comment about how little room they gave you and how, one day, he'd be able to justify splurging money on the first-class seats. Although not yet, he said regretfully.
"Are you traveling for business or pleasure?" she asked as she fastened her seat belt. "If it's business you should get your company to pay up the next time, no matter how ridiculously expensive it is."
"I nearly did once," he told her. "I worked for an Internet company for a couple of months and we splashed money round like crazy, but the week before I was due to go to L.A. -- very definitely business class, stretch limos laid on at the other end and everything -- the outfit that was going to buy us went bust."
"Not good," she agreed. "What happened?"
He smiled ruefully. "Our own company went down in a blaze of glory three months later."
"So what do you do now?" she asked.
"I run a health food store," he said.
"You look far too healthy to run a health food store," she said in surprise. "Usually people who are into tofu and vitamin supplements look as if a puff of wind would knock them over."
"Only if they don't eat properly," he objected. "I do. Anyway, I'm not really a nut cutlet and tofu person. I eat meat too. It's not written in stone that if you use herbal remedies you can't enjoy a bit of chicken tikka from time to time."
"I think it's a load of mumbo jumbo myself," said Carey robustly. "All this obsession with organic this and herbal that! And you think that you're being way out by sucking on a chicken wing or something. Nothing I like better than a juicy steak washed down with a pint of red wine."
He laughed at that, but then took a book from his jacket pocket. Clearly, Carey thought, he wasn't the sort of bloke who could take a bit of criticism. Which didn't actually surprise her since most men of her acquaintance had difficulty in accepting criticism. Even when it was justified. She tried to make out the title of his book but couldn't. She pushed her glasses higher to sharpen her vision, but he suddenly folded back the pages of the book and hid the cover. Probably a tract about the evils of modern living anyway, she thought. Which meant he wasn't really her type of guy.
She shook her head and reminded herself that she wasn't in the market for chatting to guys, whether they were her type or not. In the past she'd frequently fallen into the trap of chatting to men when her heart was already broken, and it always ended in disaster. Her friends told her that she thought with her heart and not her head, and that she simply rushed in no matter what the consequences. She knew that they were right because the last attractive man she'd gone out with -- having met him on the rebound from the not-too-bad but ultimately incompatible James -- had turned out to be married with a two-year-old son. Of course, she hadn't known about either the wife or the son when she'd started dating him. Or when she'd totally and utterly lost her heart to him. It was only when she realized (after a chance remark from her mother) that he never asked her to his place and that he always had to be somewhere at the most inconvenient times that she became suspicious. And then, of course, he'd rolled out the usual platitudes about Sandra being a great girl but that they'd married too young and it had never really worked out.
Carey gritted her teeth. She wasn't going to think about Peter Furness anymore. It had ended three months ago, but she still felt raw and hurt whenever she remembered. Which was why she had to avoid situations where she'd talk to a stranger and suddenly think that he was the man she'd been waiting for all her life and then start the whole thing all over again. She needed to give herself a bit of breathing space. The girls, Finola and Gina, had been fully supportive of her stance for about six weeks, but lately had been on at her to get out there and meet someone new. She realized they were concerned that she'd been really rattled by Peter Furness, but somehow she couldn't find the enthusiasm for throwing herself into the dating scene again just yet. Once a fixture at night-clubs and parties, she'd spent a lot of evenings at home on her own in the last few weeks. Anyway, she was tired of meeting guys, thinking that it was going somewhere, finding out that it wasn't, and having to break up with them.
At least she didn't get hurt all the time. She wasn't a complete fool. Sometimes she realized that despite the fact that the man she was going out with was attractive or solvent or caring or had a good sense of humor, she just didn't like him enough. Gina told her that she was too fussy. Finola said that she enjoyed being single too much, that she set her standards too high. Neither of those things were true, she told herself, as she pushed her wayward curls out of her face and rubbed the bridge of her nose. She just wasn't a very good judge of potential boyfriends.
Oh well, she thought, as she flicked through her magazine without reading it, at least I always realize my terrible mistakes in time. And I might do stupid things sometimes, but I always get over them in the end. Still, she added to herself, it would be nice to get it right just once. To fall for the right bloke at the right time and for him to fall for her too. It was astonishing how it never happened like that.
The plane pushed away from the stand and began to taxi towards the runway. Carey glanced towards the control tower where today Stan Mullary was the ground movements controller. She could picture Stan sitting in his seat, bright green baseball cap backwards on his head, as he ordered the planes around the airport like huge, rumbling chess pieces. Sometimes Carey thought that Stan would really have liked to be a pilot himself. But he always said no, that he'd hate all that palaver with uniforms and starched shirts and peaked caps, and he'd pull his own cap further down on his head and say that air traffic control was a much better job.
She gazed out of the window as they taxied to their position at the end of the runway. At this point she knew that Stan would hand over control of the plane to the air movements controller, Jennifer O'Carroll, who'd clear them for takeoff. According to the pilots, Jennifer had the sexiest voice in air traffic control. A kind of Mariella Frostrup with honey, the British Airways guys told her. Carey knew what they meant. Face to face, Jennifer's voice was lilting and mellow, but the mike added a huskiness that men found incredibly attractive.
"Fortunately they never get to see me," Jennifer said when they teased her about it. Jennifer herself was short and slightly plump, with cropped red hair and a cheerful face full of freckles.
"The Americans would love you," Stan often told her. "A kind of retro-colleen is what you are."
The engines whined and they began rolling. Carey closed her eyes and yawned as the plane built up momentum. She visualized them in the tower, watching the huge airbus hurtle down the runway and lift into the air until it reached around 800 feet. At which point the tower lost interest in it completely and passed it over to the control center where the controllers (younger than most people ever imagined -- she was a veteran at thirty-three) plotted their course out of Dublin airspace.
A sharp pain suddenly ripped through her stomach and she winced. She'd eaten a full Irish breakfast while she was hanging round the airport that morning. It had seemed a good idea at the time, but sausages, rashers, and fried eggs really didn't do her digestion any good at all. She wondered why she did the wrong thing so often when it would be just as easy to do the right thing. Why it was that she ate things that were bad for her, or did things that were stupid, or generally behaved in a silly and possibly juvenile way for someone who was in her thirties. She wondered at what point in her life she'd turn into a grown-up.
The plane had lifted. She felt the jolt as the wheels were retracted and then a sinking feeling in her stomach as they turned westward. Between the air pockets and the indigestion she wondered for a moment if she was going to be sick. She hoped not. It would be totally embarrassing, absolutely humiliating, in fact, for Carey Browne to throw up on a flight. She winced again. It was then that she felt his arm round her shoulders.
She opened her eyes abruptly. The fair-haired vegetarian health-freak was smiling at her as he held the tops of her arms.
"What the hell d'you think you're doing?" she demanded.
"Distracting you," he said.
"From the fact that you're clearly terrified."
"I'm not terrified."
"Of course you are," he said confidently. "You're about to squeeze that armrest into submission."
She glanced at her hands. She'd grasped the armrest when her stomach had spasmed. Her knuckles were white. She made an effort to relax them.
"You know, there's really no need to worry," he said.
"Thanks for your concern." She removed his arm from her shoulders. "But I'm fine, honestly."
"You don't look it," he told her.
"Listen, Veggie," she said crossly, "the only thing that's wrong with me is that I have indigestion from my full fry-up breakfast. Not that you'd know what a fry-up is, but it was absolutely gorgeous and worth every pang."
He grinned. "Feisty little thing, aren't you?"
"Would you give it a rest!" She regretted the fact that such a good-looking guy was a total dickhead, but regrettably she'd found that was often the case.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I guess I'm teasing you a bit. But I was worried about you."
She looked at him in silence for a moment. "Apology accepted," she said eventually. "You shouldn't make snap judgments."
"It was based on available information," he said. "But I'm prepared to revise it."
"Revise away," she said dismissively.
He grinned. "So perhaps you're really a pilot?"
She shrugged and he suddenly looked aghast.
"Don't tell me you actually are a pilot," he said. "Please don't tell me that I've insulted one of Ireland's only female 747 captains or something like that. I do have a habit of opening my mouth and putting my foot in it."
"Relax," she said. "I'm not a pilot." She smiled suddenly and her face lit up. "Far more important than that! I work in air traffic control."
"Do you really?" He stared at her and she nodded.
"I've always thought that must be a really cool job," he said. "All that peering at radar screens and looking at those dots, knowing that they're actually planes. What do you do?"
"Anything that's necessary," she told him, "but because I have an approach rating, that's what I do most often. Which means bringing the aircraft in to land, basically."
"You tell them what runway to line up on and all that sort of thing?"
She nodded cheerfully. "It's great," she told him. "All these macho pilot types have to do exactly what I tell them."
He laughed. "And do you get off on that?"
"Naturally." Her smile dimpled her cheeks.
"Oh, it depends," she said airily. "The maximum number of movements in an hour should be forty, but we can handle whatever they throw at us."
He looked at her skeptically. "You're sounding a bit macho yourself."
"Comes with the territory," she told him, and then she grimaced as another pain darted through her stomach. "Actually, sometimes it can get quite stressful, but you learn to cope."
He exhaled. "Beats organic chips any day."
She laughed and the pain subsided. "Depends on what you like doing, I guess."
"Do you work in the control tower?" he asked enviously.
"Sometimes," she replied. "Really the tower looks after things on the ground and gives clearance for departing planes. Most of us are actually in the center and we don't see the light of day at all, unfortunately."
He nodded. "I've seen pictures of them. Little green blobs on the radar screen."
"That's my life," she agreed. "Little green blobs." She looked at him from beneath her lashes. "The best video game in the world."
"You don't think that, do you?" he asked in horror.
"Lighten up," she said easily. "Of course not. But you don't think of them as planes full of people either. Just -- well, blobs on the screen that you have to move around. Like a video game."
"Are you ruthless or heartless?" he demanded.
"Neither," she said with amusement. "But you can see that it's not exactly part of my job description to be clutching at the armrests in terror."
"I suppose not," he said. "In which case you must have pretty bad indigestion. Sure it isn't an ulcer?"
She shook her head. "Indigestion."
"Because like you said, your job is very stressful."
"Yes and no," she told him. "It can be, when it's busy or when there are problems. But the great thing is that when I've finished my shift I can just walk out and go home and I don't have to think of anything. Somebody else deals with the next batch of planes."
He nodded. "Nice not to have an in-tray to deal with or anything like that."
"Exactly," she said.
"Well, Ms. Air Traffic Controller," said Ben as he sat back in his seat. "It might be indigestion, but it could still be an ulcer, or stress. In which case can I recommend lycopodium."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Lycopodium is good for mental exhaustion," he told her. "Also those who are stressed."
"I'm not stressed, honestly," she said. "I just shouldn't have eaten sausages, rashers, black and white pudding, baked beans, and a fried egg before leaving."
He grimaced. "Do you eat anything with whole grains in it?"
"Afraid not." She grinned.
"Oh well, it's your stomach to destroy," he said. "And you don't really look overweight to me."
"I have a brilliant metabolism," she told him. "Burns off loads of stuff. Besides, most times I eat healthily. More or less."
"You must do," he said. "You've got good skin, great hair, and clear eyes."
She stared at him. "You make me sound like a spaniel or something," she told him.
"Sorry." He was quiet for a moment, then turned to her again. "Why air traffic control?"
"I grew up under the flight path to Dublin Airport," she told him. "I always wanted to make sure the planes landed in the right place."
She nodded. "And my dad worked at the airport so it was kind of inevitable, I suppose."
"Are you a family dynasty of controllers?"
"Not really," said Carey. "Dad was ground crew until he retired. My older sister worked in one of the airside shops until she got married and had a gaggle of kids." Her brown eyes twinkled at him. "But my brother's a pilot."
"I feel a right thick asking you if you were scared," he sighed.
"You've probably sat in the cockpit with your brother loads of times."
"Actually, no," she admitted. "Tony's married to an Australian girl and I haven't seen him in a couple of years. He doesn't do commercial flights, he works for a private company in Perth. And controllers don't often get the opportunity to go up front in a plane."
Ben looked at her. It could all be true, he thought, or she could be making it up just to sound more interesting. She looked far too happy-go-lucky to be an air traffic controller with those mad curls dancing round her face and her lively eyes sparkling at him from behind that cute pair of specs. Air traffic controllers should surely be more serious? His only experience of them was from the movies, where actors like George Kennedy played grizzled tough guys who had to come through in any crisis. This girl didn't look as though she could chomp on a cigar like George. She should be the love interest, being rescued rather than doing the rescuing.
His next question was drowned out by the stewardess announcing that they'd start their cabin service shortly. Carey, feeling that she'd done rather more talking than she'd intended, no matter how nice her neighbor might appear, took a fresh magazine out of her bag and began to read. He went back to his book, which, she realized, wasn't actually a vegetarian handbook but a John Connolly blood and guts thriller. In her opinion, this showed a secret longing for gore in a far too healthy life, but she said nothing and immersed herself in 20 Ways to Get Your Body Ready for Spring.
But they got chatting again when the meal was served, which was when he told her his name was Ben Russell and that he lived in a modernized two-up, two-down house in Portobello. And that he actually owned the health food store he ran as well as two other similar stores in the city. She told him that she hadn't pegged him as a multi-vitamin entrepreneur, more of a shopkeeper. And he laughed and said that there wasn't as much money in it as you'd think, but that he was very happy doing what he was doing. Money wasn't everything, he said, which was just as well because he'd lost a fortune on the Internet company and now he plowed most of whatever he made back into the shops.
She warmed to him. He was easy to talk to and easy to get on with. He wasn't as patronizing and sexist as she'd originally thought. He talked about the radical change his life had taken when the Internet company went bust and he moved into herbal remedies instead. He told her that he was in partnership with his sister, Freya, and that they were trying to get away from health foods and natural remedies as being a goody-goody way of looking after yourself.
"That's why we sell fruit-flavored condoms," he remarked, causing her to splutter into her glass of wine. He grinned and confirmed that they were excellent sellers. "You'd be surprised," he added, "how many people ask me if the orange-flavored ones have Vitamin C added."
"And do they?" she asked.
He laughed. "You mean you haven't already tried them?"
She asked him what it had been like when the Internet company had gone bust and he told her that it had been the weirdest feeling in the world. One day he was the marketing manager of a company employing a hundred people, the next he had nothing. "If only the damn takeover had gone through first," he said gloomily. "It was worth a fortune. At least then we could have gone bust with some personal cash in the bank!"
"So why did you go into health food stores?" she asked.
It had been his sister Freya's idea, he explained. Six years older than him, she'd worked in a bank all her life but had always wanted to do something else. Alternative remedies were an interest of hers. So when she came to him with a business plan which exploited her business knowledge and his marketing expertise, they'd taken their proposal to the bank, succeeded in getting a loan, and had taken the plunge together. Now, three years later, things were going really well.
Carey realized she was enjoying the sound of his gravelly voice as he chatted to her, and the way his bondi-blue eyes lit up with animation when he spoke of things he was interested in, as well as the way he listened when she spoke of things that interested her. Their interests were very similar. They both liked action movies, loved Italian food, agreed that Barcelona was probably the most beautiful city in the world -- and neither of them could stand opera. Quite suddenly she understood what people meant when they talked of meeting someone whom they felt they'd known all their lives.
For the first time ever she was disappointed that the trip across the Atlantic didn't take longer.
"D'you need me to hold your hand?" Ben asked as the captain announced that there were fifteen minutes to landing. "In case you're really a sales rep for a sheep dip company or something, and everything you've told me is a complete lie, and you are, actually, secretly terrified."
"No," she said, her voice brimming with laughter, and then she mentally kicked herself for not saying yes. And then she told herself that she was right to say no, because she was definitely still hurting from the Peter Furness episode and she was better off not getting involved with anyone, no matter how quickly they made a transatlantic flight pass by. Just for once, she reminded herself, learn your lesson. Don't fall for someone on the rebound.
They didn't talk as the plane descended through the wispy white clouds that hung over JFK. When they landed it was as though the previous six-and-a-half hours hadn't even happened. Ben was extra polite as he took his bag from the overhead locker. She smiled at him in the way that strangers smile when they're forced to acknowledge each other, while realizing with a pang that the enforced intimacy of their journey had come to an end. But maybe it was just as well, Carey thought. She wasn't ready to lose her heart again, she really wasn't. Peter Furness's betrayal had shaken her more than she'd realized.
"Maybe I'll see you on another trip to New York," said Ben as they waited to disembark. "I'll definitely think about you whenever I'm flying, though. I'll be wondering if you're the one putting us into some crazy holding pattern over the Bay."
"I doubt that I'll be back in New York anytime soon," she told him. "I'm here for a party." She looked at him quizzically and spoke impulsively. "You wouldn't like to come, would you?" After the words were out she wished she hadn't said anything. But he was looking back at her, his eyes bright and interested.
"What kind of party?"
She shrugged. "You don't have to come -- of course you don't. It's just -- well, you said you were here to see your U.S. suppliers, and I thought you might be bored..." Her voice trailed off. She wasn't usually so tongue-tied. Everyone knew her as decisive and determined. "A friend of mine is getting married. She's having a bit of a do in her soon-to-be-husband's totally awesome apartment."
"I'd love to come," said Ben. "Of course, I get bored when I come here. There's only so much you can say about Vitamin E supplements. And I've never been in a totally awesome New York apartment before!"
She smiled. "Where are you staying?"
"The Pennsylvania. Not flashy but OK."
"You're only a couple of blocks from me," she told him. "I'm in the New Yorker."
"Is this party tonight?" he asked. "I'm supposed to be having dinner with some people, but..."
She shook her head. "Tomorrow. It'll give you time to get over your meetings and your dinner."
"OK," he said. "Will I meet you at your hotel?"
"How are you getting into the city now?" he asked.
"Oh, the bus," she told him. "I'm traveling light and it leaves me near the station."
"Share a cab?" suggested Ben.
She smiled. "I'd love to."
In the cab, the intimacy was restored. Once again, Carey felt as though she'd known Ben for years instead of hours. Even when they lapsed into silence she didn't feel uncomfortable in his company. She simply gazed out of the window and watched as the Manhattan skyline grew ever closer.
She was tempted to ask him into the hotel, but she knew that the New Yorker didn't have a bar. So she simply said that she'd see him the next day and he said fine. They looked at each other uncertainly for a moment, then she smiled at him and walked through the revolving doors without looking back.
Copyright © 2003 by Sheila O'Flanagan
Too Good to be True
Air traffic controller Carey Browne is seeing nothing but blue skies. She's leaving on a jet plane...for a much needed vacation! Destination: New York City. Travel time: Six hours. Seating arrangement: Next to a man who's much too attractive to be single. Not that Carey's looking. She's taking time off from dating, too. Most of the men she meets are a lot like airplane food: nicely packaged, well-preserved, and profoundly unsatisfying. When she begins chatting with Ben Russell, though, it's as if Carey has known him all her life. He's quick-witted, kind, and makes her laugh -- even at herself. Ha!
Then it was time for take-off.
One stopover later, Carey and Ben are married in Las Vegas, and their transatlantic announcement is causing sudden turbulence back home. How can two strangers claim to be each other's soul mate? Ben's sister is adamantly opposed to Carey; she thinks he's having a mid-life, no-wife crisis. As for Carey's folks, well, they know the marriage will never last. Right? Rumors are running amok, as are past lovers. Why is everyone trying to ground the newlyweds and convince them that they've made a huge mistake? And why is Carey starting to worry that maybe they're right?