The flight attendants checked the cabin and then sat in their seats. The plane’s engine revved.
The man leaned in and sniffed. It was subtle but obvious enough for her to notice.
“Sorry. I ran down a taxi, and I hope I don’t smell bad.” She half cringed and half smiled. “I’m really not a morning person.”
The plane sped down the runway and gently lifted off the ground. They ascended skyward.
“Going on a business trip?” he asked.
“No, heading home.” Lainie gazed out the window at the world below her. The lights of Vegas in the distance. Her chest constricted as if a snake wrapped around her, squeezing her lungs and suffocating her.
She turned to him. Her breaths came in swift, painful tidal waves, dragging all the air out of her lungs with each passing second.
“I’m Lainie. What’s your name?” Her voice was barely audible as she tried to act normal.
The man looked at her with the same seemingly curious gaze as Henrietta had.
“I’m Michael Flanagan. I’m originally from Vegas, but I’m going home to Atlanta. I travel a lot between the two cities for business. Are you okay?”
She nodded. The plane seemed like it was spinning out of control. She reached for the man to steady the spinning, to catch her breath, and to gain composure.
“Head between your knees.” He pushed her head down. “Breathe. First time away is hard. Almost impossible to do.”
Her heart pounded out of her chest. I’m going to die. I can’t die. Frank needs me. I have to go home.
“Breathe in,” he whispered. “Let the blood get back to your head.”
She gasped for air. I’m not going to make it.
His warm hand stroked up and down her back, soothing her, relaxing the layers of constricted muscles, allowing air to return to her lungs.
“It’s not good to be apart from the one you love.”
“I’m okay. I’m okay.” She pushed her back against his hand.
He guided her up little by little until her back hit the soft leather seat. “Better?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
“No problem. It happens… Not to me.” He winked at her.
She would have laughed, but her head wasn’t quite back to normal. Instead, she smiled.
“Do you live inside the city?” she asked.
“No, suburbs. Buckhead.” Michael shifted in his seat, turning toward her. “What do you do?”
“I work for myself,” Lainie said. “What do you do?”
Michael adjusted his blue-and-white-striped tie and talked her ear off for most of the trip about his financial consulting firm. He fished for more information about her and her business. But, his questions weren’t too specific, so she gave general answers. He seemed to want her to be open about her life and career, but she’d learned a long time ago people got weird when she mentioned she was a massage therapist. There would be an awkward joke, a body part shoved at her, or full disclosure of some physical problem from the person.
She wasn’t looking for business. She needed a friend, not a client. Luckily, he didn’t pry or come close to guessing her real job, so she never really gave him what he wanted. They chatted about the local restaurants and the best places to dine. Her favorite places.
She made a point to keep her answers vague. But she liked him and got closer and closer to telling him a little more about her personal life, something she rarely considered doing with anyone, let alone a stranger.
Michael, on the other hand, told her where he grew up in Vegas, when he moved to Atlanta for business, restaurants he recommended in both cities, and even asked her to join him for dinner the following evening as they exited the plane.
Using work as an excuse, she declined. Making social plans didn’t work out often with her husband’s illness. If he had a good day, she wanted to celebrate with only him. If he was struggling, she wanted to be there to take care of him.
Together they walked to baggage claim, picked up their luggage, and continued to the parking lot.
She reached out and shook his hand. The shimmering effect on her skin intensified upon contact. Something was definitely up with the lotions and oils she’d sampled all week. She’d get to the bottom of it once she unpacked.
“It was nice meeting you, Michael. I hope you enjoy living in the best state in the Union. Before you know it, you’ll be telling everyone you were born and raised here, and never mention that other
Michel shook her hand, and chuckled. “Lainie, what’s your last name?”
She blushed and shook her head.
“It’s Ivanovski. Lainie Ivanovski. I’m sorry. My mother is turning over in her grave at my lack of manners. And thank you for helping with that little panic attack on the plane. I don’t know what came over me. I’m usually the most relaxed person in the room.”
Michael handed her his business card.
“If your work gets finished and you’re in my part of town around eight, call me for dinner. My treat. You can bring your husband.”
“Thanks, but I don’t expect to be done until ten,” Lainie said. “That’s too late for my husband and most people.”
“Not me,” Michael said. “I’m still coming off Pacific Daylight Time. That’s my dinnertime.”
Lainie laughed, tucking his card into the front pocket of her jeans. “You’re right. I’ll call you if I can.”
“Great,” Michael said. “Meet you at ten fifteen at Jules Steakhouse.”
“You’re funny,” Lainie said. “Don’t count on me.”
“I will, but if you don’t show, at least I’ll eat well.”
“See you later,” Lainie said. I won’t be there.
“Great. Bring your husband. I’d love to meet him.”
“We’ll see.” She walked off to the shuttle for long-term parking.
“Wait up,” Michael called after her.
She glanced over her shoulder. Michael hustled toward her. He moved surprisingly smoothly over the sidewalk in his navy designer suit and leather shoes.
“I’ve got a car waiting.” He grabbed her luggage bag near her feet and walked to a black limo.
In any other circumstance, she would have backed away from him, but her gut pushed her feet forward automatically. He seemed concerned for her safety and her well-being, like a man worried about his sister or a close friend.
He placed their luggage next to the trunk. “I’ll take you to your car. No reason to wait.”
The chauffer held open the back door for them.
“Thanks,” she said. “Sometimes the shuttle takes a little longer when Percy is working. He is known to drive around the lot for people who can’t remember where they parked as they click their alarm button and listen for it.”
“You know the shuttle drivers? Do you travel a lot?”
“Yeah, I do. Percy’s a sweet man, but gosh, he can take a while. I know he’s working today.”
Michael’s eyes lit up. “So, do you travel to the same cities for business?”
“Yes, sir,” Lainie said. “Mostly Chicago and Manhattan, but occasionally I head out to Los Angeles and San Francisco. I try to limit those trips. I’m really a homebody.”
“What exactly do you do?” Michael asked.
The driver glanced back at her through the open window in the center of the front seat rest, seemingly listening as he drove to long-term parking.
“I’m a massage therapist. I know. I know. I don’t look like one. I don’t act like one. I’m not all tree hugging and new age. I’m a normal, everyday kind of girl. I’m just gifted at what I do.”
“And your husband is okay with it?” His head jerked back, knocking the headrest of his seat with a strong thud. “That doesn’t seem possible.”
“My husband doesn’t mind. He knows business is business, and I’m professional. There’s the occasional come-on, but it’s rare. Everyone I work with knows the deal. If they say or act improperly, they pay me for the infraction, and they are blacklisted from my services. Period. If they refer someone who acts or says something improper, not only is that person banned from my services, but they are too.”
“Really? That sounds like a dangerous profession.”
She shrugged. “Surprisingly, it can be. But my policies keep me from having to deal with assholes. I travel to clients’ homes. Sometimes, I go on a client’s business trips or tours. I’m heading to Chicago next week for a couple days for a client.”
She looked out the window at the beautiful blue midmorning sky with the sun beating down to scorch everyone. The shuttle bus idled in the middle of an aisle. The gray-haired shuttle driver, Percy, wiped his dirty hands on the hand towel he always kept hanging out his back pocket. He picked up the extra car jack from the side of the sedan and walked toward the bus.
“There’s Percy helping that old lady with her flat tire. He’s a great guy. Slow down for a second.”
The car slowed to a crawl.
She pushed the button to open the window. She stuck her head out.
“Hey, Percy.” She waved. “I’ll see you later this week.”
“Hey there, Miss Lainie.” He waved back. “Missed you yesterday. Thought your plane was running late. Then, I remembered you were coming in today. You’re early.”
“Yes, sir,” Lainie said. “I got an earlier flight.”
“Be careful driving home. I-20 into the city is backed up something fierce this morning. Tractor trailer tumped over and has four lanes blocked.”
“Thanks for the heads-up,” Lainie yelled. “Give my best to Trudy, and tell her I loved the peach cobbler. I ate it in the terminal. All of it. I’ll probably see you Wednesday.”
“Yes, ma’am, Miss. Lainie,” Percy said. “E-mail me your schedule once it’s confirmed. I’ll have Trudy make you some more.”
Lainie waved good-bye and rolled up the window. “My car is two rows down on the left.”
The driver repeated her instructions and drove right toward it.
“There it is.” She pointed to her sports car.
The driver seemed confused as he looked at where she pointed but didn’t slow down to let her out.
“Hey, you passed it.” She pointed at the back window. “The Mercedes convertible.”
“Your husband fits in that?” Michael asked, raising his brow.
“It’s small, but Frank loves it. He’s…” She closed her mouth, cutting off the flow of information on the tip of her tongue. She swallowed and started over. “Yeah, he does.”
The limo stopped behind her car.
“Frank Ivanovski?” Michael asked. “The music producer?”
She nodded. A lump of emotions clogged her throat. She swallowed hard, clearing the constriction enough to speak.
“Yeah, most people don’t recognize the name if they aren’t in the biz.”
The driver got out of the car and walked around to her side.
“I’ve heard of him but don’t know him,” Michael said.
The car door opened. The bright rays of Georgia sunshine highlighted the silver sparkles on her flesh.
“Bring him to dinner,” Michael said, sliding closer to her as she adjusted in her seat to leave. “I’m not a musician. I don’t have any musicians in my family. I don’t consult with any musicians. We won’t talk shop since I can’t sing worth a damn. We’ll talk about something else. How about the great state of Georgia?”
She chuckled internally. “We’ll see, Michael Flanagan. I’m going to Google you first to see what kind of serial killer you are.”
She stepped out of the limo and dug into her pocket for her keys. A new wave of anxiety flowed through her as she picked up her luggage from the driver. Her fingers clasped tightly around the metal keys.