Excerpt: Dear Cupid

Dear Cupid by Julie Ortolon

Texas Heat Wave

Dear Cupid,

Do you believe in love at first sight?

Seriously Smitten

 ~~~

Dear Seriously Smitten,

Absolutely! I always enjoy a good fairy tale.
In the real world, things take a bit longer.
What appears to be love at first sight is actually a
subconscious recognition of a potentially compatible
mate, a premonition, so to speak, of what could be.
Only time will tell if the premonition comes true.

Cupid


KATE needed a man. Any man.

The publisher of the online magazine that carried her advice column had been clear: Find a new man, or find a new job. Apparently, the author of “Dear Cupid” needed romance in her own life in order to connect with her readers.

Romance? Kate hadn’t experienced romance personally for years. Not since the beginning of her disastrous marriage. Maybe not even that recently.

Oh God, she was so going to lose her job.

Glancing around the gate area of the Los Angeles airport, however, she realized any man wouldn’t do. The businessman pacing before the window looked too edgy; the grandfather with the armload of Disney souvenirs too old; and the two men in the corner appeared a little too interested in each other for her purpose.

What she needed was a nice, reasonably attractive sort of man. Someone friendly. Approachable. Someone with whom she could flirt. Nothing more. Just flirt. The last thing in the world she wanted was the emotional turmoil of an actual relationship, but a tiny reminder of how romance felt couldn’t hurt.

She still couldn’t believe that Gwen, the owner and publisher of Gwendolyn’s Garden, had threatened to cancel her column over such a thing. She was Cupid, for goodness’ sake! They couldn’t cancel Cupid. Her column generated thousands of hits a month for the magazine. Or at least it used to. As Gwen had pointed out, her popularity was dwindling–because her column had lost its spark.

Now, however, was not the time for worry or self-pity. She needed to take control, to recapture the carefree spirit she’d lost during her final years as Edward’s wife.

Turning her head, she saw a new passenger stroll into the gate area. Her tumbling thoughts slowed at the sight of him. He had potential. First thing in his favor, he looked nothing like her uptight ex-husband. He had the sun-streaked hair and rich tan of a man who spent a lot of time relaxing in sunny places. The Hawaiian shirt and khaki pants gave him a casual, lived-in look that told her status didn’t rate high on his priority list. Edward, on the other hand, had been dark-haired and model gorgeous, and he wore designer clothes as easily as some men wore jeans. He’d also turned into a self-absorbed, materialistic workaholic who cared more about his careerand the social status that came with itthan he did about his family.

The stranger’s battered gym bag, which he carried as luggage, made her briefly wonder if he even had a job. Not that it mattered, since she didn’t want to date him. She just wanted to dip one toe back into a pond she’d thought had dried up.

When the stranger reached the ticket counter, he lifted his blue-mirrored sunglasses and smiled at the ticket agent. Kate’s heart did something it hadn’t done in years: it gave a hard thump of desire against her ribs.

Goodness. She pressed a hand to her chest. Where had that come from?

His smile, she realized. The man had a devastating smile and relaxed posture that conveyed both confidence and easygoing humor. Generous laugh lines winged outward from his eyes, marking him as older than she’d first thought. Late thirties, perhaps. As for his body, the baggy shirt hid a lot, but watching him move, she suspected the broad shoulders tapered down to narrow hips.

Some long-dormant part of her stirred to life.

That scared her nearly as much as the thought of approaching him. Not that shyness had ever been an issue for her. Far from it. She loved people. She just hadn’t interacted with a man in a romantic sense for more years than she cared to think about.

She could do this, though. She would do this.

The minute he took his seat, she stood and tugged at the jacket of the red power suit she’d worn in an attempt to bolster her confidence for her meeting earlier that day. Time to take her first baby step toward getting her fun, romantic self back. All she had to do was approach a stranger in an airport and flirt his pants off–figuratively speaking.

~ ~ ~

Mike pulled off his sunglasses and stowed them in his bag as he collapsed on a seat. Dropping the bag at his feet, he took a moment to make sure his computer rested safely on top. Then he slumped down with his head resting on the back of the seat to wait for his flight.

Exhaustion closed his eyes. He was getting too old to put in these sixteen-hour workdays for weeks on end. What he wouldn’t give to just pass out for the duration of the flight. Unfortunately, he had too much on his mind to give in to sleep. Squeezing in some time to visit his family between back-to-back meetings had pointed out the big gaping hole in his life where a wife and some children should be. His twenty-year high school reunion had driven the point home. What a reality check that had been! He couldn’t believe some of his former classmates had children in college, while he had yet to even get married. How had twenty years flown by so fast? One of these days, he really needed to catch up on everything he’d let slide.

The problem was he enjoyed his job a little too much. Make that way too much. As a special effects movie animator, he loved everything about his work. Even the demanding schedule that pushed him creatively, mentally, and sometimes even physically gave him a thrill. That was the price you paid for living the dream.

But was that really living?

As his mind searched for possible solutions to the problem, a jangling thud sounded right in front of him. He ignored it. Working on movie sets for the past twenty-odd years had taught him to tune out all manner of chaos. Whatever had bumped into his leg, however, demanded attention.

“I’m so sorry,” an anxious voice insisted. “Please excuse me.”

He opened his eyes and found a woman crouched before him as she reached beneath his seat.

“How terribly clumsy of me,” she said. Her purse had fallen and spilled its contents at his feet. Long, coppery curls obscured her face, brushing his knee as she hurried to collect her belongings. He leaned forward, intending to help her on her way as expediently as possible so he could get back to mulling over how to find some balance in his life.

“I swear, I’m such a klutz today,” she rushed on, gathering up pens and breath mints, a mobile phone, some loose change, a set of keys, and several business cards.

Shaking his head, he reached for a runaway tube of lipstick only to have his hand collide with hers. The lipstick tried to skitter away, but he grabbed it before it made good its escape.

“Gotcha,” he said, chuckling. He lifted his head to address the lipstick’s owner and found himself face to face with the most enchanting woman he’d ever seen. She had a heart-shaped face with an impish nose, stubborn chin, and pouty lips that begged to be tasted. Gazing into her shamrock green eyes, he felt his insides swirl, as if he were falling forward into a field of clover–a field where a man could lie back and rest with a woman snuggled to his side as he lazily watched the clouds float by. A smile slowly turned up the corners of her lips, and he realized her eyes tipped up at the corners as well.

“I really am terribly sorry,” she said in a breathy voice that reached inside him and tied his stomach into knots of pure desire. “It’s the flying, you see.” She placed a hand over her chest. “Planes make me very… nervous.”

His gaze dropped to her hand, which rested right at the point of her V-collared red suit. He would never have guessed a woman with orange hair could look that good in red, but on her the combination packed a sexy punch. Or, perhaps his light-headedness came from staring at the breasts beneath her hand. From what he could see, she had great breasts.

Realizing he was staring at them, he snapped his gaze back to her face. She gave him a patient little smile–as if waiting for him to say something in return. Only, he couldn’t remember her last comment, much less form a suitable response.

She laughed lightly. “Not that I’m judging you or anything, but I really don’t think it’s your shade.”

“My shade?” he repeated, wondering what shade her breasts could possibly be that wouldn’t suit him just fine.

“No, actually that’s my shade,” she said. “As in my shade of lipstick?”

She rose slowly to stand before him. Her red suit hugged the kind of figure that had been in style back in the forties: full breasts, nipped-in waist, generous hips. Staring at that body, he wondered why fashion designers tried to convince women they should look like anorexic clothes hangers. This was what men wanted: Woman in her most powerful, elemental form.

When he continued to stare at her, she pointed to his hand. “You’re holding my lipstick.”

He glanced down. “So I am.”

She started to reach for it. “How gallant of you to rescue it for me.”

“Not so fast.” He snatched the tube out of her reach. “How do I know it’s yours?”

One of her winged brows lifted at such an obvious ploy, but her eyes sparkled with mischief. “Now, that is a dilemma.”

“Let’s see…” He drew the words out, enjoying the game, anything to keep her near. “I suppose I could have you describe it for me.”

“All right.” She tossed her head and his fingers twitched with the temptation to bury themselves deep within her fiery curls. Would her hair feel as hot as it looked? When she met his gaze head-on, her eyelids dropped to half-mast. “It’s round,” she said huskily. “And it’s silky. And it’s the color of passionate peaches.”

All the blood rushed from his head right to his groin. God, what he wouldn’t give to pounce on her right there in the airport. Numbly, he opened his palm and read the label on the end of the tube. Passionate Peach. “So it is,” he muttered.

Her fingertips brushed his palm as she took the lipstick from him. Was that her hand trembling, or his? “I don’t know how I’ll ever thank you,” she said.

His mind conjured up a few dozen possibilities.

With a final, knowing smile, she turned and walked away, her hips swaying to a silent, seductive beat. He stared after her, determined to give her a salute of approval the moment she glanced back over her shoulder. But she never looked back. Even as she took her seat between two other waiting passengers, she kept her gaze averted.

He frowned, thinking it odd that such an accomplished flirt would leave it at that. Then he remembered the flutter of her hand, the heightened color of her skin. Either she’d been equally affected by their game, or she wasn’t as bold as she pretended to be.

Before he could decide, the ticket agent gave first-class passengers permission to board. He started to reach for his bag, but stopped when a white rectangle on the floor caught his eye. One of the business cards that had spilled from her purse still lay at his feet.

He picked up the card, hoping to learn her name, but the mug shot printed on the front proved a disappointment. The attractive blond woman who smiled back at him was not the woman he’d just met. Returning the card, however, would give him the perfect excuse to speak to her again. Better yet, the phone number was for the Lake Travis area, just west of Austin, where he now lived. So, the mystery woman either lived near him, or knew someone who did.

His mind searched for the best way to return the card as he swung the bag over his shoulder and headed for the ramp.

~ ~ ~

Kate cringed inwardly over the blatantly sexual way she’d just described her lipstick. Was she so rusty at flirting that she’d forgotten how to keep it light? Instead of exchanging friendly repartee, she had sounded like a hooker trying to pick up a trick. In the airport!

As for dumping her purse on his feet, she stifled a groan of embarrassment. What an obvious ploy. Not that she’d had much choice since merely dropping the purse hadn’t fazed him. Oh, but once she’d gained his attention… Heavens! He had gorgeous blue eyes, and a slow, sexy smile that had made her insides flutter. Remembering that smile, she forgave herself a little for flubbing her first attempt at casual flirting. What woman wouldn’t get rattled over a smile like that?

She did her best not to look at him, but from the corner of her eye she saw him head for the ramp. What was he doing boarding with first class? Had she jumped to a completely false assumption based on his clothes? Being laid back didn’t automatically equal broke. He could be a beach bum born with a silver spoon for all she knew.

Not that it mattered. Nothing mattered at the moment but saving her job. Except, all she’d done just now was prove Gwen right. If she couldn’t even flirt with a man anymore, how could she serve as the Dear Abby for the lovelorn on the Internet?

Oh, God. She slumped forward and buried her face in her hands. What would she do if she lost her column? She had no other job experience. All she had were a stack of bills to pay and a seven-year-old son to feed.

The flight attendant called for coach passengers to board, and she stifled another groan. On top of everything she’d been through that day, now she had to get on a plane and walk right past the man she’d practically propositioned.

~ ~ ~

Mike studied the business card in his hand as he waited for the woman in red to board. On the back, he discovered a handwritten note.

Kate,
Good luck in L.A. See you when you get back.
Linda

The name on the front of the card was Linda Davis, so Kate had to be the woman carrying the card. Kate. A smile tugged at his lips. The name suited her. Kate with the saucy red hair and sweet green eyes.

Just then she appeared through the hatch and his stomach clenched. Never in his life had he felt such an instant kick of attraction to a woman. No, it was more than attraction. It was… a connection.

He quickly slipped the card into the breast pocket of his shirt, deciding to wait until the plane was in flight to return it. That way he could go back into the coach area and talk to her rather than simply hand it to her as she passed. Still, he wanted to catch her attention so he could once again feel the jolt that came from her smile. Unfortunately, she kept her gaze fixed firmly ahead as she walked by him.

Frowning, he turned in his seat and watched her move down the aisle, all the while willing her to look back. Instead, she took a seat halfway back, never once glancing his way. The longer he watched her, the more confused he became by her inconsistencies. Her stylish suit said Professional Businesswoman, but her tousled curls screamed Free Spirit. As if sensing his gaze, she shifted nervously, not at all the confident woman who had flirted with him in the gate area. Could his instincts have been wrong about her?

Just as his doubts began to rise, she turned to the young mother who sat across from her and her whole face softened at the sight of the child in the woman’s arms.

There it was, the jolt from her smile that told him she was the answer to why he’d never married. His crazy schedule had nothing to do with it. He’d simply been waiting for her.