Sandra's Classics - The Bad Boys of Romance - Boxed Set

BOOK: Sandra's Classics - The Bad Boys of Romance - Boxed Set
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Sandra’s Classics

Box Set

 

 

INTIMATE STRANGERS

by
 

SANDRA MARTON

 

 

Copyright 1987, 2012 by Sandra Marton

CHAPTER ONE

Jessica Howard
clutched at the armrest of her seat. Her white-knuckled grip felt desperate enough to leave fingerprints in the metal frame.

If only her heart would stop racing.

If only her stomach would stay put.

If only the damned
airplane were back on the ground.

Two months of rigorous attendance at the Fearful Flyers Club had changed nothing. Well, no, she thought, that wasn’t quite true.

At least now she could board a plane without looking as if she were going to be ill.

To the casual observer, Jessica looked every inch the cool, New York career woman.

Only she knew that deep inside herself, Jessie Howard, formerly of Canton, Ohio, looked out at the world firmly convinced that if humans had been meant to fly, they’d have been born with wings.

The big 1011 had barely taken off from New York’s Kennedy Airport—and Jessica was half convinced only her silent prayers had enabled it to do that—when they’d hit their first air pocket. Whatever that was. All Jessica knew for certain was that the flight had been like a ride on a roller-coaster.

The plane pitched again and she caught her breath. She could never understand people who liked roller-coasters. What they found enjoyable about the tortuously slow climb to the top and the shrieking, headlong plunge towards the earth below baffled her, but at least you could avoid roller-coasters.

You couldn’t avoid
airplanes, not if location shots were part of your job.

The plane bucked and rolled as if it were a living creature, not a machine made of
aluminum and plastic. It was hard not to think of the plane as an animal determined to shake itself free of its human riders.

Jessica had a sudden, vivid image of a
rider on a bucking horse at a rodeo. Yes, she thought, that was more like it. If you were lucky, you’d stay on till the end. If you weren’t...

Without thinking, she glanced across the almost empty plane. Well, at least that explained the
cowboy, she told herself grimly. There he sat—slouched was more like it—with his eyes closed and that damned relaxed expression on his face.

Of course he felt completely at home riding
this—this mechanical mustang. He’d probably spent half his life having his bones jarred loose on the back of a horse. Maybe he wasn’t happy unless his brain was bouncing around inside his skull. Maybe he thought this was how flying was supposed to be...

His eyes flickered open and caught hers. She turned away quickly, but not before he’d grinned and nodded at her. There it was again, she thought uncomfortably, that same damned knowing smile, as if he knew how
terrified she was. But he couldn’t, no one could. Even the stewardess who’d brought her lunch hadn’t suspected a thing.

‘We’re going to land early,’ the girl had said with professional good cheer. ‘We’ve got a terrific tail wind.’

And Jessica had nodded and smiled and waved away the tray of plastic food that made her stomach lurch.

‘Nothing for me, thanks,’ she’d
said her own smile the equal of the flight attendant’s. ‘I’m on a diet.’

The girl nodded. ‘I understand. Love your outfit, by the way.’

Jessica managed to return the smile. ‘Me, too,* she admitted.

Which had been a mistake, of course. A true
Manhattanite would have simply smiled and murmured, ‘This old thing?’ But then, Jessica hadn’t quite mastered the rules of the game. There were still times she was certain the whole world could see right past her clothes and make-up and know that she was really just little Jessie Howard from Canton, Ohio.

The man had been watching her almost from the minute their plane had left the runway in New York. He had grinned at her then, condescendingly, almost as if he knew she’d been holding her breath while the plane seemed to gather itself together and leap into the sky.

Her glance had drifted away from him in cold dismissal. The Cowboy, she’d dubbed him on the spot, taking in his denim jacket, his faded jeans, his leather boots, his Western hat. Of course he’d think her fear was amusing.

He was all teeth,
muscle, and brawn, a macho stereotype without enough brains to worry about several tons of metal hurtling through the sky in defiance of all the laws of nature.

He didn’t even have enough sensitivity to understand another person’s concern. Well, why would he? Cow punchers weren’t very intelligent, she was sure. All they had to do was stay on the top of a horse and yell, ‘Yippy
ki yay’ or something silly like that. Western macho definitely wasn’t her style.

The plane had finally
leveled off and the ‘No Smoking’ sign had vanished. She had relaxed and drawn her first easy breath when, suddenly, there he was in the aisle beside her.

‘Hi, there,’ he’d said in a soft, drawling voice. ‘Would you mind if I sat down? We’re in for a long flight
and...’

‘Yes, I would mind,’ she said bluntly. ‘I have work to do.’

His smile had been quick and easy. ‘I see. Well, if you have a change of heart...’

‘I won’t.’

She couldn’t believe she’d said something so rude, even as the words left her lips.

But he had
simply grinned,

‘Nothing like
a woman who knows what she wants.'

'I couldn't agree more.'

'Well, if you have second thoughts—'

'Trust me,' she'd said. 'I won't.'

He hadn’t spoken to her or even come near her again, but had managed to bother her anyway. Every now and then, she’d had the nagging feeling that he was looking at her and, sure enough, each time she turned around there he was, with that dumb smile on his face. Even now, with the plane dipping and soaring as it defied gravity and the storm that raged outside, he was still watching her...

Stop that this very minute, Jessica told herself. There was no storm out there, only clouds and turbulence, whatever that was, at least that was what the pilot had said an eternity ago when he’d asked that his passengers fasten their seat belts and stay in their seats.

He’d even made a joke of it. ‘We’re glad you folks finished lunch before we hit this stuff,’ he’d said in a slow Western drawl. ‘And we’re sure you’ll be glad to know that our ETA at Cheyenne is going to be fifteen minutes earlier than scheduled, thanks to these winds.’

Hardly anyone in the half-filled plane had even looked up. They’d all gone right on reading or sleeping— sleeping, for heaven’s sake—while she’d glanced around, looking for—well, she wasn’t sure what she’d been looking for.

Cracks in the plane’s walls, maybe, or red warning lights, or...

‘Miss Howard?’

Startled, Jessica widened her grey eyes and looked up. The flight attendant was standing beside her and smiling.

‘I thought you might like some coffee, since you didn’t have lunch.’

Jessica shook her head and swallowed audibly. ‘No, no, I’m fine, thanks. Umm ... how much longer until we land in Cheyenne?’

‘Just a little over an hour. We’ve made great time, haven’t we?’

The plane lurched and the flight attendant swayed with unconscious grace. The girl wasn’t even grasping the seat for support, Jessica noticed unhappily. She was the one doing that, and she was sitting down!

Deliber
ately, she let go of the seat in front of her.


And a good thing we have,’ she said in what she hoped was a calm voice. ‘I have to catch a connecting flight.’

‘Yes, 25B and 53A have connections to ma
ke, too.’ The flight attendant smiled at Jessica’s blank look. ‘The passengers in seats 25B and 53A, I mean. Both gentlemen are going on to Jackson Hole on Western Air’s four o’clock flight. Is that the one you meant?’

Jessica shook her head. Why on earth had she started this conversation? It was bad enough that she still had another hour to go on board this flying death trap without thinking about the next one.

‘No, I’m flying on Wind River Airlines. Will we land near their gate?’

The girl shrugged her shoulders. ‘Sorry, I never heard of it. I’m new to this route—I’ve been flying mostly international. What’s your final destination?’

‘A place called Eagle Lake,’ Jessica said. ‘My agency’s doing a picture shoot there.’

‘I thought so. I told Charlotte—the girl in the rear cabin—I told Charlotte you must be a model. I couldn’t help but notice that big bag of yours
, like the kind models carry.’

‘I’m not a model,’ Jessica said quickly, trying not to notice that the plane had shuddered hard enough so that the magazine on her lap slid sideways. ‘Actually, I’m a fashion
coordinator for an advertising agency.’

The flight attendant nodded. ‘No wonder you’ve got such great taste in clothes.’

Jessica smiled. ‘It also explains how I can afford them,’ she said. ‘I get a fantastic discount.’

‘The girl laughed. ‘Lucky you. Well, let me know if you change your mind and want something, OK?’

Jessica watched as the flight attendant sauntered casually up the aisle. She couldn't imagine earning your living by flying, day after day, week after week...

She sighed and leaned back in her seat. You did what you had to do, she thought. She was a living testament to that.

Two years ago she’d come to New York ready to become the world’s greatest photographer. Who’d have dreamed she would end up making her living by preparing models for somebody else to photograph?

Not that hers wasn’t a good job—she met interesting people at the Allen Agency and she went to unusual places, even if she did have to fly to get to most of them.

It was just that she seemed to have got further and further from the career she had dreamed of since her mother bought her a simple camera for her twelfth birthday.

Jessica
checked her watch.

Only another hour and they’d be landing.

At least they were flying more steadily now. The seat belt sign was still on, but every now and then some determined soul made his or her way down the aisle towards the lavatories at the rear of the plane.

They all walked with the care and precision of people who
'd had too much to drink, but, as far as she could tell, they all made it.

Surely she could manage it, too?

It would be nice to splash some cold water on her face. And it was probably time to run a comb through her hair and put on some fresh lipstick. After all, there might be someone from the Macello Fur account catching the same connecting flight at the Wind River Airline gate. She might not be the only one joining the group at Eagle Lake Lodge at the last minute.

With exaggerated care, Jessica unbuckled her belt and rose to her feet. She turned and grasped the top of the seat behind her. So far, so good. There was hardly any sensation of motion at all
. Still, she touched each seat as she moved slowly down the aisle, breathing a sigh of relief when she reached the first lavatory. It was unoccupied, and she opened the door and stepped inside.

The mirror above the tiny sink confirmed her suspicions. Her hair certainly did need combing, she thought, rummaging in her handbag. It was a tumbled mass of dark, glossy curls. And she needed more than lipstick; her face was so pale that her eyes looked like dark grey pools against her skin. She needed some blusher and maybe
a little lip gloss.

Her glance slid to her leather vest and matching pants. The flight attendant had been right; it was a good-looking outfit. It just wasn’t very comfortable.

An old pair of cords and a sweatshirt would have made more sense, especially once she reached Eagle Lake Lodge and started crawling around behind the camera, fluffing curls and soothing egos.

But clients wanted a certain image.

Jessica understood that.

The
only trouble was, Jessie didn’t, and sometimes, when she looked in the mirror, it was Jessie who looked back at her, Jessie who shook her head sorrowfully, remembering a time when the only images that mattered were the ones you saw through a viewfinder.

It was pointless, thinking that way
. Her outfit was going to be perfect for a place like Eagle Lake Lodge, a place that would add just the right touch of rugged glamour to the new client’s image. And it would be an interesting few days, living on a dude ranch in the West.

Not that they’d really be roughing it, of course. Her boss would never let reality go that far.

A sudden image of the man in the plane flashed into her thoughts. He certainly had the look of reality about him. She was certain no designer had fitted him for those jeans or that jacket. In fact, when he’d stood beside her, she’d almost expected to smell hay and horses but what she’d smelled was a combination of leather and something spicy and clean.

Nice
, when you came right down to it. On a professional level, of course. If you worked for an advertising agency, it was natural to notice when somebody had modeling potential.

And she had to admit the man was good- looking in a rough, outdoorsy way. Not just his face, but his body. When he’d stood beside her, she had had to tilt her head back to see his face, he was so tall. And he had broad shoulders and
long legs and...

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