In retrospect, the Valium probably would’ve been enough to soothe Grace Montgomery’s nerves on the flight from Los Angeles to Indianapolis. The wine was most likely overkill.
As was the tequila.
It had all started innocently enough. “Take one pill an hour before the flight,” her doctor had told her, “and one an hour into the flight. You’ll be completely relaxed. Valium is magic, I swear.”
“The kind of magic that keeps planes from falling from the sky in a ball of fiery death?” Grace had asked.
Her doctor’s answering smirk should’ve been a warning. “The kind of magic that makes you not care on the way down.”
And she hadn’t. Cared, that is. The magic Valium had done its job.
Until take-off, at least.
As soon as the plane started rolling down the runway, as soon as she felt the rumbling of the engine in her belly, she started panicking. The man sitting next to her in seat C2, no doubt having noticed the white-knuckled grip she had on their adjoining armrest, had suggested a glass of wine, which she’d requested from the flight attendant as soon as she’d been allowed. But even though she gulped it down in two swallows, the wine was absolutely no match for her anxiety, because she soon started hyperventilating.
C2 had pressed an air-sickness bag into one of her hands, and a mini bottle of tequila into the other. After breathing deeply into the bag for a few moments, she’d unscrewed the tequila and downed it, too. One swallow that time.
Grace was nothing if not a quick learner.
It was then she’d made what she thought was a tragic error. She’d asked for a second bottle of tequila, which she used to wash down her second Valium. The calm that had quickly washed over her was amazing. She couldn’t remember a time when she’d felt so relaxed.
And warm. She was suddenly really, really, warm. So it only made sense that she’d strip off her sweater, right?
Sadly, while she was shedding layers, she elbowed the guy next to her in the eye.
“Jesus Christ,” he’d muttered, holding a hand over one eye.
That was when she got her first good look at C2.
Maybe it was the Valium, or maybe it was the alcohol, but holy hell, he was beautiful.
His inky hair was long overdue for a trim and fell in messy disarray—the kind of messy disarray that hot men achieved naturally and women paid big bucks to a salon to fake—to just above the collar of his white button-down shirt. With his knife-edged cheekbones, strong jaw, and olive complexion, he looked like he could be Hugh Jackman’s younger brother.
Grace had watched Wolverine four times, and not because the storyline was stellar (or even remotely plausible, really). Her mouth immediately went dry. Other parts of her…not so much.
“I’m r-really sorry,” she whispered.
He lowered his hand and she winced at the elbow-sized welt forming under his eye. “Are you always like this on a plane?” he asked.
She frowned at him. “I’m a nervous flyer, okay? Lots of people are nervous flyers.”
He shook his head and ran his hand through that amazing hair of his. “This isn’t nervous. I’ve seen nervous. You’re a train wreck, lady.”
He wasn’t lying. Didn’t make his comment any less insulting. “I’m sorry if my fear of falling from the sky and plummeting to a fiery death is inconveniencing you in any way.”
One black brow winged upward. “Fear all you want. I couldn’t care less. But when you try to blind me with your fucking elbow while you strip down to your underwear…well, that’s when I start to care.”
Grace glanced down at her white layering tank top. It wasn’t see-through. Minimal cleavage was on display. Perfectly respectable. “I said I was sorry about elbowing you, okay? And I’m not in my underwear.”
His gaze dipped down. “I can tell that you’re cold.” He smirked as his eyes met hers again. “Or turned on.”
She so wasn’t cold.
“I’m cold,” she said dryly. “Don’t flatter yourself.”
His smirk morphed into a full-fledged grin, and Grace fought the urge to fan herself. Jesus, the grin was nothing short of panty-dropping. A smile like that should be illegal. All those straight white teeth and the dimple that carved into his cheek…it was gratuitous, really.
And his eyes? An amazing oceanic mix of blue and pale green. Men shouldn’t be allowed to have eyes that pretty.
“Let’s start over,” he said. He held out his hand. “I’m Nick. Nick O’Connor.”
She was so busy staring at his eyes—and being envious of his thick, dark eyelashes, if she was being honest with herself— that it took her a moment to realize he was speaking to her. She took his hand. “Grace. Grace Montgomery.”
Something akin to recognition lit his eyes for a moment, making her wonder if he knew her. Had they met before? But she immediately dismissed the thought. If she’d met this guy before, she’d remember it.
His hand was warm and callused, and dwarfed hers. Her gaze traveled from his hand up his thick forearm, exposed by the rolled-up sleeve of his shirt. His biceps strained the fabric of that shirt, as well. If the arms were any indication, a muscly chest and flat stomach were a foregone conclusion.
She considered then that her judgment might be impaired. No one was this good-looking. Or else Nick O’Connor was genetically blessed in a way that was totally unfair to all other men.
Tequila goggles. She was wearing a set of tequila goggles. There was no other explanation.
He cleared his throat, drawing her attention back to his face. He let go of her hand and she fought the urge to grab his again. She knew she was an embarrassment to feminists everywhere, but there was something insanely comforting about having a big, strong guy holding her hand. If she’d grabbed him early on, maybe she wouldn’t have needed the Valium. Or wine. Or tequila.
“So, Grace,” he said, “have you always been a nervous flyer?”
She laid her head back against the seat, suddenly feeling a little off balance. “Yeah. I don’t like being closed in. Or depending on people I don’t know to fly the plane. And land the plane.”
“Uh huh. So you’re one of those.”
She frowned at him again. “One of those what?”
“I am not a control freak.”
Was it her imagination, or had she slurred that sentence?
He gave her the panty-dropping grin again. Yep, she’d slurred.
“Whatever you say, angel.”
Being called a control freak was kind of a hot button for Grace. It was something her ex-husband never failed to bring up when they’d argued, which had been often. And the fact that this total stranger would agree with her ex pissed her off. She also took exception to him assigning her a nickname. Grace unbuckled her seatbelt and stood up to tell him so.
And that’s when her memory got a little…fuzzy.
She had a distinct memory of poking him in the chest, telling him he didn’t know anything about her. He’d told her to sit down. To calm down. She’d refused, colorfully and loudly. She’d tried to badger a man in another row into trading seats with her. The guy had refused, colorfully and loudly.
Nick had gotten in the middle of that argument and tried to tell her something about who he was, what his job was, but she was too busy yelling about…something to catch all of it.
The next thing she knew, Nick had forced her back into her seat. He might’ve also threatened to cuff her if she got into any other arguments with passengers, which seemed a little excessive. And…kinky.
“I’m sorry,” she thought he’d said at that point.
“I’m sorry, too,” she vaguely remembered responding.
Then, she couldn’t be sure, but she thought she might have leaned over and puked all over his shoes. After that…there was nothing but blissful, blissful unconsciousness.