The Past in The Present
The only other time Alaine traveled by air it had been in the wee hours of the morning – just past midnight in fact. The sky was still painted black and speckled with the silver of winking stars when she boarded the non-stop flight to New York. Although it was summer’s end, the sun still rose relatively early so after a seven-hour flight, JFK had greeted her with fair and sunny weather.
As the plane approached the airport, she realized then that she hated that part of flying. The landing to be exact. It felt like being hurtled toward certain death. With no intention of visiting home during her stint at university, sitting in an airplane wasn’t something she was likely to repeat anytime in the near future. Until Lucas Bright, she’d happily avoided it.
More importantly, as the plane took its nosedive toward the ground, she realized that an aerial view of New York City during the day was not nearly as impressive as she’d imagined.
Before that bird’s eye view, starting over in this great big city on her own at age seventeen was as thrilling as it was daunting. Since she received her scholarship, Alaine had thought of little else and longed for nothing more than for that day to arrive. Despite all the preparation she’d made, when the time came, she’d been afraid to go.
Unlike the few other teenagers in their little community who dared dream outside the five junior colleges near small-town Kellogg, Idaho, Alaine had no one to venture into the unknown with her. Where everyone else had concerned mothers and fathers and siblings offering support, emotional goodbyes, and sage advice, she had nothing and no one.
There was no bittersweet send-off. No words of wisdom and no one helped her pack. Other than her high school’s guidance counselor, a few of her interested teachers and a student advisor from the university, no one in her family had even bothered to ask how her plans were progressing in the months leading up to her last night at home. She’d gone to her bedroom alone and sat there for what felt like an eternity before the taxi pulled up outside her house at nine in the night.
They hadn’t come out of hiding to say goodbye or wish her good luck either. Delah must have forgotten because she did not return home from her date even though she promised to accompany Alaine to the airport. Her parents hadn’t bothered to leave their sacred bedroom where they harboured all the love they had to give for themselves.
With tears in her eyes, Alaine squared her small shoulders, dragged her heavy suitcases to the front door and said so long and good riddance to the quiet house.
“No one else home?” the driver who was sympathetic to her plight asked.
At least he had the decency to help her carry the heavier things. Alaine was reluctant to answer the question and even more reluctant to get into a car with a stranger by herself. As far as she was concerned that’s how kids like her ended up in the news. But what was she to do? She didn’t want to miss her flight, so she told a lie.
“My sister is expecting me at the airport. I’m sending her your information.”
She did exactly that and included a picture of the middle-aged man who’d told his name was Marty Fitch. The message hadn’t gone through which likely meant that Delah had her phone off but the driver did not know that. Doing so still lessened the sense of unease Alaine felt.
As she got into the back seat and the taxi pulled away, she permitted herself that final glance back at the house she grew up in. There had never been any love there for her – for her sister maybe – but never for her. However, she’s still convinced that she saw the curtain in the kitchen window drawn aside and a shadow standing there. It had been too dark to tell for sure and too much to hope that one of her parents cared enough at least to watch her go. That entire situation had been confirmation that moving away from Idaho was the best thing.
However, once struck by the dreariness chiseled into the large red brick structures and the coldness drilled into the steel and concrete of others throughout the five boroughs, all the enthusiasm was stripped out of the idea and what remained was fear.
In the light of day, the big apple was nothing more than a warren of buildings connected by streets and alleys with a few patches of green parks in between. This city that Alaine felt an ordinary girl could easily morph in with the crowd and remain unnoticed became a labyrinth. The kind you see in horror movies. The closer they had come to landing the greater the longing for home and the familiar grew.
Back then, she’d adopted a Mathematical approach in order to adjust to her new environment. Her small rural community stood in stark contrast to this mega-metropolitan area. The last time she checked, the population of Kellogg, Idaho was still under three thousand souls compared to New York’s millions.
In order to survive in New York City with its many distractions, everything boiled down to routine. Only very rarely would Alaine allow herself to deviate from the set path. Even her shopping runs are calculated and never fall outside of a certain radius. Most trips extended from home to school, work, and back. On that route are her preferred grocery and clothing stores. With the exception of graduating last fall, not much else has changed.
The only real difference between those days and the present is that Alaine has family with her now. Plus, there is this new entanglement with the charming Lucas Bright to occupy her time.
The only time Alaine really stepped outside of her regime was on New Year's Eve druing her second year in her city. On invitation and insistence from a fellow student, she ventured into Manhattan at night to attend a party. It was the first and last time she would participate in anything so daring.
At first, the experience was exciting. The exuberance of those partaking in the activities was exhilarating and infectious. She’d actually relaxed enough to enjoy it. Things took a turn during the countdown to the New Year.
An over-enthused, drunk stranger grabbed her from behind. His meaty arms tightened around her waist and the next thing Alaine knew, her feet were off the ground and she was being hauled off in the dark. Her terrified scream had blended right in with the other loud disharmonious shouts of jubilation from other revelers and the crackle and pop of fireworks. Her fight for freedom must have been misinterpreted as celebration because no one came to her aid and the hulking stranger hadn’t released her right away.
When he finally did, he’d actually smiled and had the gall to introduce himself. In a fit of rage, Alaine had hit him. No that’s not right. She’d pummeled him, raining a series of fists against the beefy wall of his chest with angry tears streaming down her face. When her strength was all but depleted, she’d shoved him. He hadn’t budged. He hadn’t even tried to end her tirade.
Thankfully, through his inebriation, he’d discerned her distress and was genuinely apologetic. Though against her request, and though they never spoke another word, the stranger had followed Alaine to the subway and seen her safely on the train to home. She cried the entire way. There was only one other time in her life when Alaine had been so struck by terror.
After that experience, even if the change from the norm had been mostly enjoyable, any such event was out of the question.
It’s kind of like this thing with Lucas. So far it’s been great but there are a lot of unknowns to it – unfamiliar feelings that leave her wondering what else the night and their arrangement has in store for her.
Approaching the Nation’s capital from the air brings back the memory of that New Year ’s Eve because it’s the only other time she’d done something so completely out of character.
It also shows Alaine that her hatred for flying remains unvanquished. Observing the landing strip, illuminated by only twin thin rows of lights to guide them home in the surrounding darkness is slightly more terrifying than landing in New York by daylight, however.
Unaware of her date’s attention while he watches her, Alaine cranes her neck to get a better picture of the spangled terrain blinking up at her in the distance against the inky blanket of night. That’s the other thing that drew her mind down memory lane. The iridescent lights below remind her of Manhattan on that New Year’s Eve.
Suddenly the ground appears to rise up to meet the aircraft, firmly knocking Alaine out of her reminiscence. Her stomach curls in on itself and she presses her back into the seat to brace for impact. This is still the worst part of flying.
Their descent onto the pitch is rocky. The plane dips and sways before hitting the runway with a heavy thud and screeching wheels. If it weren’t for the seat belt keeping her firmly in locked in, Alaine might have jumped into Lucas’ lap.
A frightened yelp leaps from her throat when the rubber hits the asphalt. Squeezing her eyes closed as the plane forces it’s way through the drag, she grabs Lucas’ hand where it is posed on the armrest between them.
He too tenses but that is the extent of his reaction to the sound of metal around them groaning and shuddering in protest. That tension and the flip-flopping in his stomach has more to do with Alaine’s small fingers closing around his like he is a lifeline rather than the rough landing. In response, Lucas adjusts her hold so he is able to run his thumb repeatedly in gentle strokes over her knuckles, turning white from her tight grip.
Alaine sucks in a deep breath until they ease into a smooth taxi along the tarmac.
“It’s the worst part of flying, I think,” Lucas comments, confirming her earlier thoughts. “You’re fine, Alaine,” he assures her, his eyes twinkling with amusement.
Releasing her death grip on his hand, she offers him an apologetic look, exhales slowly and explains, “My only other airplane experience was from Idaho to New York. That was almost four years ago.”
“Sometimes it feels like I live in the air,” Lucas says in comparison. “This…,” he continues while gesturing to the interior of his jet. “…Is more about necessity than luxury. There’s a bedroom, galley, bath. Everything a frequent flyer needs,” he explains.
Although this feels like a chance to offer an opportunity take her anywhere she wants in the world – wherever her heart desires, he says, “I can give you a tour tomorrow if you wish.”
“Sure,” Alaine agrees as she gathers her shawl to wrap around her shoulders.
Once the plane comes to a complete stop and the exit is opened, Lucas leads the way down the aisle to where Seth is already waiting on the top step. The air outside is frigid. Alaine shivers in the first rush of cold wind. Both men consider offering her their jackets. Although it’s for completely different reasons, neither is sure how the offer will be received. They also want to comment on her choice not to carry a coat but cowardice keeps them silent.
Seth’s reluctance is a simple matter of not wanting to stir Alaine’s wrath. He’s been caught in the maelstrom of her emotions enough times to know that she can be cruel with her words. In a different time, years ago, it would have been nothing for him to take the clothes off his back to give to her. Alaine is his little cousin and he loves her. Once upon a time, she was the closest thing he had to a sibling.
If things were different he’d have reprimanded her about her choice of attire too. The first thing he noticed when she stepped out of her apartment is how little the dress leaves to the imagination. He also doesn’t dare comment on her lip-lock with his boss. It irks him because this is not what it’s supposed to be. Had he known that the great Lucas Bright would pounce on Alaine’s innocence, he never would have suggested an introduction between the two. A business arrangement. Those were the exact words Lucas used when Seth told him about Alaine. Out of respect for his handsome salary, Seth bites back his scoff.
He desperately wants to caution Alaine. To tell her that she needs to be careful and not read anything into this new development in their situation. But right now, as things stand and as hurtful as it is, his cousin hates him.
For Alaine’s sake, Seth never tries to rehash what actually happened on the day she’d gotten hurt. If she heard his explanation, maybe he could get her to come around or see things from his perspective. The cost of doing so might be too great. What would happen to Alaine if he dredged up the bitter past? How would it affect her? Because he has no idea, he refuses to upset the balance she’s achieved in life. He’ll carry the hurt until he takes his dying breath. Hopefully, there will be absolution for him before that happens.
Instead of speaking his mind, Seth gives her a little glance. A glance he hopes says everything that’s on his mind. Deliberately, Alaine avoids eye contact with him.
Lucas’ issues are not so rooted in sentimentality. This whole situation with Alaine has thrown him for a loop and he doesn’t know how to interpret it.
He’s never wanted the approval of another person as much as he wants the approval of the woman beside him. He’d shelled out an unnecessary and exorbitant amount of cash on the new tuxedo and shoes he’d purchased at the last minute for this evening. Just to impress Alaine. Then he’d spent a questionable amount of time in front of the mirror trying to decide which way he thinks she prefers him wearing his hair – whether falling over his forehead or brushed back. She’s reduced him to the antiques of a bumbling teenage crush.
In the end, he settled for how he wore it the first time they met. Women generally prefer his hair falling forward for whatever reason.
The unfamiliarity with this whole thing prevents him from mustering the courage to remove his jacket and place it around her shoulders like he really wants to. It feels like the gentlemanly course of action but he can’t bring himself to do it even if he knows that her little shawl is no match for this temperature. Scolding her seems inappropriate as well so he doesn’t do that either.
With a resigned sigh, Lucas loops Alaine’s arm through his when their transport arrives at the foot of the steps to take them across to immigration. It’s fortunate that he had the foresight to do so. Her dress gets caught in her heel and she trips.
“Be careful,” Lucas cautions as he tightens his hold on her.
With gratitude, Alaine fastens her free hand over his bicep to steady herself but conceals just how much his courteousness amazes her.
When their feet hit the ground, Lucas hastens his steps to the waiting vehicle. His one goal is getting Alaine out of the cold and into the warmth of the terminal. Had he been brave enough, he would have pulled her against his side to keep her protected from the worst of the chill. Before this woman, he never would have guessed himself a craven when it came to the fairer sex.
They get through the arrivals terminal rather quickly. Apparently, this time of year is the slow season for travelers or it could be her companion that makes the trip through the airport a breeze. As young as Lucas Bright is, he commands respect. The most noticeable thing of all for Alaine though is that Lucas is nothing like what she expected.
Until they officially met, she was of the opinion that all men of his stature were the same – uptight, narcissistic idiots who thought they held a legitimate claim to the world and everything in it. Working in the restaurant business she’s come across a few of those. Not to mention her first encounter with Lucas, he’d been an ass whistling at her butt the way he did.
Maybe in the last three years, he’s done some maturing because none of those things can be applied to the man still clinging to her arm for fear that she may fall in her heels. At least not so far. He confuses her mind and feelings quite some, to be sure. Other than that he seems almost too perfect. She keeps waiting for a glimpse into his true nature each time they meet. How long can one person hold on to an illusion? She wonders.
Contemplation scrunches up Alaine’s brow and has her tilting her head up to look at Lucas.
“What?” he asks when he glances down to find her watching him.
Caught staring, a guilty flush stains Alaine’s cheek. Flustered by the amusement in his little smile and shining eyes, she clears her throat. “Nothing,” she says. “Thank you, I guess.”
“What for?” Lucas questions, his eyes still resting on hers. “I haven’t done anything.”
Shrugging her shoulders, Alaine offers him a smile that transforms into a nervous laugh under his fixed gaze. “I don’t know,” she says. “You’ve been nice. Really nice,” she adds.
“You sound surprised,” he notes. “So I’ve graduated? I’m no longer capricious then? That’s progress,” he teases.
“Oh no,” she tells him while shaking her head and her bouncy curls. “You’re still that. But you’re also very nice,” she concedes.
What possesses Lucas to reach down and rearrange the few ringlets of her hair that fell out of place, he will never know. When he’s done, he allows the back of his hand to graze Alaine’s cheek and leans in close to speak in her ear. “That’s just our kiss talking,” he says in low voice.
More merriment oozes into him again when he hears her soft gasp and he witnesses the layer of goosebumps raised on her flesh. Lucas laughs softly. The poor girl truly is innocent. She wears it like a neon sign.
While he is successful in his attempt to remind her of what they shared during their flight – something that he doesn’t want her to forget – Lucas can’t help but note that mentioning their kiss has made Alaine tense.
As much as he yearned to kiss her again, something about attacking her for a second time during their flight felt wrong. He really doesn’t want to scare her off. The smart thing he’s realized is to move at her pace. He’s discerned that about Alaine. She needs to have some control over what happens between them so he will relinquish the reins until she is comfortable. Certain that the opportunity to kiss her again will present itself at some point during the evening, he hadn’t pressed.
Right now, his concern is getting her to be as relaxed in his presence as she was earlier this evening.
“I’ll get the car,” Seth says, his voice interrupting Lucas’ brain’s scramble to think of something to say to set Alaine at ease.
“You two should wait in here where it’s warm,” Seth suggests for Alaine’s benefit. “I’ll call once I’m outside.”
“Perfect,” Lucas agrees. “You should try to relax,” he directs to Alaine after Seth leaves them.
“I’m trying,” she answers.
“What will it take?” he asks her. “I’ve been trying to think of what to say or do to get you to loosen up but I’m drawing a blank. I feel like I should return the favour,” he adds. “So help me. What will it take?”
Surprised by his question, Alaine takes a second before she responds. “I don’t know,” she finally says.
“Hmmm,” Lucas hums thoughtfully. “What is it that has you so tense?” he questions. “Because I mentioned our kiss? It won’t happen again if you don’t want it to.”
Those bold words set fire to Alaine’s insides. Not only are they unexpected in the kind of way most things are with her date, but they’re also disappointing. “This isn’t helping, you know,” she tells him.
“On the contrary, I think it’s working perfectly,” Lucas observes. “I do have a question,” he continues in a brisk tone. “Do you not own a coat?
“As a matter of fact, I do,” Alaine replies. “Two to be exact. My sister thought neither was appropriate for the evening.”
“So she would prefer you catch your death?” Lucas asks. “You had to have known that this scrap of material would be useless in winter weather.”
Although she knows he is referring to the thin cloth wrapped around her shoulders, Alaine looks down at herself. He’s right. She was well aware that it would offer little protection against the biting chill. Delah had insisted that Lucas would hand her his jacket. That has yet to happen.
“I’ll be better prepared next time,” she tells him.
Before Lucas is able to respond by insisting she borrow his jacket, the phone buzzes inside his pocket. “We’re on our way,” he says into the device before Seth gets a word in. “Seth is waiting outside,” he informs Alaine after ending the call.
They hurry to the seclusion in the backseat of the rented SUV. It takes a lot of control for Lucas to defy the strong desire to offer himself to keep Alaine warm. He could place her cold delicate fingers between his. Or better yet, he could tuck her against his side and wrap her in his arms until she responds to his body heat. Since they’ve only shared that one kiss, he can’t take those liberties. Not yet, anyway. Consequently, Lucas’ only other option is requesting that Seth turn up the heat.
The drive from the airport to their venue is a little under an hour but it’s punctuated by friendly chatter. That is not to say that Lucas’ nearness and the scent of his cologne permeating the warm car and the memory of their kiss are not wreaking havoc on Alaine’s senses. Each breath she takes, Alaine inhales a lungful of Lucas and God, does he smell amazing.
Her mind roves back to his kiss on the plane, zeroing in on when he’d held her in such strong arms, against a strong warm body with a touch of finesse in his hands. His fingers had lit a path of fire on her bare skin. Each time he turns to look at her with those intensely gray eyes or his lips quirk up in a smile or he laughs, Alaine wants to offer him her lips.
“We’re almost there,” Lucas announces. “Are you ready?” he asks.
“I still don’t know how to do this,” Alaine admits softly.
“Just act as you would normally,” Lucas suggests. “Like this is a regular relationship. Nothing over the top like what happened on the plane. That we can leave for private,” he says with smile.
“I’ve never been in a relationship,” she counters and deliberately ignores his last comment. “I don’t know what to do.”
“Well,” Lucas tells her as Seth swings into a wide gate leading to a long driveway in a woodsy part of Washington D.C. “It’s do or die,” he jokes. “Just relax and have fun. I think you’ll be fine. We’ll be getting out soon,” he informs her.
Taking a deep breath, Alaine turns away from Lucas to peer at the large, two-story glass house situated in the middle of a beautifully lit and manicured lawn.
“Wow,” she breathes softly and Lucas smiles at the exclamation. “What is this place?” Alaine asks.
“It’s my home,” Lucas answers. “I haven’t actually moved in. It was recently constructed and is still unfurnished. Do you like it?” he asks her.
“It is beautiful,” Alaine admits.
“I can give you a tour sometime,” he offers. “Not tonight,” he says quickly. “Other than the main area the rest is locked down but we could come back sometime, maybe, if you’d like. Do you see that tent?” he asks, pointing to the crowd of photographers waiting beneath an elegant canopy tent. “That’s where we’ll be getting out. They will ask questions. You don’t need to answer if you don’t want to. I avoid interviews myself. Are you ready?” Lucas asks again.
Though Alaine feels anything but prepared, she nods her head. Hopefully, her greenness won’t be too apparent but she certainly feels stupid and inexperienced. A few months shy of twenty-two and her first kiss comes from a man she made a deal with. But at least she can boast that she was flying in private jet when it happened.
“We could hold hands,” Lucas suggests. “To sell the ruse,” he adds right before roping his fingers between Alaine’s.
Their hands interlocked this way feels more intimate than any other time Lucas held her hand. Especially as he’s looking at her with such tenderness and understanding. Maybe he is aware of how pleasurable it feels or maybe he isn’t, but Alaine relaxes the muscles and enjoys his display of affection.
“Remember we’re having fun,” Lucas says. “Be you and smile. If I touch you occasionally, don’t stiffen, okay? We should probably do a practice run,” he suggests.
“What do you mean practice?” Alaine asks.
A lone finger trails down the length of her exposed back then follows the same path up in tantalizing slowness. Lucas has wanted to do that since her apartment. Alaine stiffens at his touch.
“No stiffening,” Lucas reminds her.
Unfortunately, they have no more time for coaching. The car slows to a stop while Lucas chastises himself for not thinking of using the entire drive to better prepare themselves for what’s coming – the questions and the expectation that they behave in the manner of a new couple. Like Alaine, pretend or not, he’s also new to relationships. The practice would have benefited both of them.
After exiting the car, Lucas guides them to the area rife with photographers. Camera lights flash fervently, blinding Alaine and there is barely a pause between the questions coming at them from the pressing throng. If it weren’t for the queue and the burly security officers keeping them at bay, the eager opportunists might have breached their designated boundary.
Being the centre of attention is disturbing. Alaine clings to Lucas like she did as they descended the steps on the plane, with her arm glued to his bicep and she keeps her body close to his.
Taking the opportunity as it presents itself, Lucas does what he’s been wanted to do all night. He pulls away from Alaine long enough to place an arm around her shoulders and pull her to his side.
His little display provoke the photographers into a frenzy. As he promised, Lucas ignores the questions pertaining to Alaine. He doesn’t even offer them her name. He does stop to give in to the request for photographs.
For the purpose of bolstering their subterfuge of intimacy, Lucas drops his head so that he can speak into her ear. “I know you're nervous but please relax. You look so beautiful. Either you manage a smile or I’m going to have to kiss you right here.”
It works too because Alaine gasps softly and her eyes shoot to his face. Before that, her body had all the give of a plank of wood. Her eyes literally ask the question, here? In public? Though Lucas is a bit taken that she doesn't respond with defiance, his own eyes answer, yes. Here in public.
He doesn’t kiss her but leans forward and presses his forehead to Alaine's. Looking up at him this way, suddenly she is lost, experiencing her own fade to black moment where everything except him disappears.
“This is even better,” Lucas says. “That look in your eyes might be more enthralling than your smile.”
Without giving her time to recover, Lucas dips his head in a final acknowledgment of the photographers, and with Alaine completely shocked, he guides them along the pool in the front yard with its blue waters luminescent from the glowing lights beneath.