by KG MacGregor
A disastrous office affair has left Channing Hughes unemployed and (very bloody) cynical. What better time to leave Boston for her native England, where her late grandfather has named her sole heir of the Hughes fortune, along with the centuries-old manor house that’s been in the family for generations. Only one problem with that plan—there is no Hughes fortune. The only way out from under the hefty tax bill is to sell the manor as quickly as possible or find a high-level job to support it.
If anyone deserves to be cynical about life, it’s Dr. Lark Latimer. She overcame a dysfunctional upbringing in East Boston only to lose both her college sweetheart and a promising medical career when her Ma fell critically ill. Determined to bounce back, Lark signs on with a pharmaceutical company, a job that takes her abroad to investigate a drug trial gone sideways. She finds an English countryside that’s bursting with charm—including the dry-witted, sophisticated Channing, who may be just what the doctor ordered.
Neither woman imagined the spark they shared on their transatlantic flight would lead them to life-changing decisions. Will Channing give up a future with Lark to save her home? Or will Lark persuade her to sell the manor and return to Boston?
Their time clock is ticking.
Also available as an Audio Book!
FROM THE AUTHOR
"As a frequent business flyer for many years, I enjoyed my share of travel perks. Few were more appreciated than an upgrade to first class, especially after a long day at work. That was the genesis of this book, a bedraggled business traveler who scores an upgrade on an overnight flight to London. Now toss in a complication: her new seatmate is less than thrilled about it, since that particular seat was meant for the ex who dumped her.
Frankly, that’s about all I had when I promised Bella I’d have a manuscript ready by February. The table was set for a romance, with plenty of obstacles to overcome—perky versus grumpy, American versus Brit, lucky upgrade versus entitled full-fare. Still, I hadn’t settled on a theme, a big idea to tie the pieces together. Was this going to be an emotional roller coaster, a social commentary or a whimsical romp?
Several chapters in, it struck me that just staying true to these characters’ chemistry might be enough to see it through. Like Out of Love or Mulligan. Don’t plan, don’t outline—just keep watching them and write down what they do. I’m oversimplifying the process, but that’s pretty much how this book unfolded for me. Two career-minded women at a crossroads, both facing the most pivotal decisions of their young lives. None more important than which comes first—the milk or the tea?"
Lex’s Reviews - I thought the writing was really well done in this book. I instantly found myself hooked into the story. Not only were the characters likeable, but their jobs and life were interesting. I found myself really caring about what would happen next. Lark is a doctor whose job is to oversee drug trials. Never thought this would be an interesting job, but it really was. There is a tiny mystery about why three patients got sick on their normally safe medicine. It is up to Lark to find out why. This baby mystery was really interesting and helped to keep me flipping the pages. I definitely recommend this to romance fans and I hope everyone enjoys this as much as I did.
“Hundred bucks says her tits aren’t real.”
From a quiet corner of the British Airways lounge, Lark Latimer glared in the direction of the paunchy, middle-aged businessman who’d uttered his sexist slur loud enough for several others to overhear. It was a singular brand of catcall, the sort hurled by a loser who knew when a woman was out of his league.
She too had noticed the woman in black. Her breasts appeared perfectly natural, raised to form a gentle cleavage by what probably was an ordinary push-up bra. What stood out to Lark was the way she walked in murderous three-inch stilettos. The rhythmic tap of her steel-tipped heels on the marble floor was like a techno-soundtrack to her sensual glide. Hip…shoulder…hip…shoulder. Chest high, chin out. And an unflappable steely gaze.
The brash man’s two companions added wolf whistles and a shouted invitation to join them, their flattery dripping with contempt. To call it adolescent was an insult to teenagers.
“G and T, please. Sapphire if you have it,” the woman said to the bartender, her melodic British accent adding charm to an already alluring persona. She took her drink to a bar table by the window, beyond which a Boeing 747 loomed like a beluga whale.
Unfortunately, Lark noted, the woman’s snub of the businessmen did nothing to dampen their lewd behavior. A pack of dickheads performing for one another. The loud one squeezed his crotch and grumbled to his companions, “Think she’d like to use my stir-stick?”
“You’re sick, Fred.”
And repulsive too, Lark thought. She’d scrupulously watched the three over the past hour as they grew louder and more vulgar with each trip to the self-service beer cooler. Making matters worse was the near certainty that Fred and his pals, like the forty-odd others scattered in various alcoves and work carrels throughout the lounge, were on Lark’s late-night flight to London.
Fred continued to sneer, as if personally wounded by the woman’s indifference. “Go over there, Jimbo. Check out them tits.”
The younger man he prodded had baby-smooth cheeks already splotchy from alcohol. Jimbo, as he was called, hardly seemed the sort to approach a strange woman, let alone inquire as to the authenticity of her breasts. He kicked at the third man. “You do it, Vic. You’re better at this than I am.”
With a sleazy chuckle, Vic replied, “Just tell her you’re TSA and you need to check her for liquids.”
Lark cleared her throat and gave them a scolding look. Deplorable, all three of them.
Fred shot her a contemptuous glance as he drew a crisp Ben Franklin from his wallet and crumpled it to make sure it wasn’t stuck to another. “Go on, Jimbo. A hundred bucks just for asking her. That’ll get you a blowjob in Soho.”
Sitting with her back to the room, the elegant woman nursed her cocktail and scrolled through her phone, oblivious to their loathsome scheme. It occurred to Lark to hurry over and strike up a conversation—safety in numbers—but before she could collect her belongings, Jimbo rose to make his move.
The two who stayed behind chortled, gleefully anticipating her impending humiliation. Jimbo perched on the adjacent stool at her table, red-faced and grinning, furtively glancing back to his buddies as he plied her with fatuous chitchat. His words were inaudible from across the room, but there was no mistaking the moment he let fly his ill-advised inquiry—it was answered by the sudden dousing of his lap with her cocktail. The stain spread quickly on his tan slacks, even down his leg. To the casual observer, he’d pissed himself.
“London passenger Latimer, please see the agent.”
Lark had been waiting for word on an upgrade to business class but she hesitated now to leave the lounge in case Jimbo lost his temper. Her dilemma was solved when the woman picked up her shoulder bag and relocated to another section without fanfare, leaving the men to guffaw at their buddy’s sullied state.
“I’m Dr. Latimer,” she said at the desk.
“I’m so sorry. I was unable to accommodate your upgrade request. But I snagged you a seat in the first row of World Traveler, and I’ll bump you up to the second boarding group as a courtesy.”
World Traveler was British Airways-speak for economy class. Tiny seats that reclined an inch or two at best. At least in the first row she wouldn’t have to deal with someone leaning back into her lap. “I don’t suppose there’s anything open in first class?”
This was Penny from Plymouth UK, according to her name tag. She clacked away on her keyboard. “I could issue a new ticket for an additional…thirty-eight hundred. That’s US dollars.”
Ouch! “That’s what I get for missing my flight. Lesson learned. Thanks for the bulkhead.”
“We always do our best to accommodate Silver Executive customers. We just received word from the crew. They’ll begin boarding at any moment.”
Jimbo waddled by toward the restroom holding his wet pants out from his crotch.
“Penny, I hate to make trouble but I probably should give you a heads-up about a certain situation. Three men in the back room by the bar—I assume they’re on this flight too—they’ve been drinking for a couple of hours at least. They’ve gotten out of hand, harassing a woman because she wouldn’t talk to them.” She jerked her thumb toward the men’s room. “That guy who just walked by said something nasty to her and she dumped her drink on him.”
“Oh, dear. I know exactly the men you’re talking about. They’re regulars on this route.” Penny crinkled her nose and lowered her voice to a whisper. “Our beverage manager says they drink all the Harvey’s Ale. Did you happen to notice who the woman was?”
“Really pretty. Kind of tall, reddish-brown hair down to here.” She drew an imaginary line at her shoulder to indicate the length. “She got up and moved away from them. I think she’s sitting just around the corner now. Black jumpsuit…spiked heels.”
“Oh right…Miss Hughes. I checked her in.”
Miss Hughes. Lark jotted that down in her mental black book. “Just to be on the safe side, you might want to have a look at the seating chart and make sure she’s not sitting next to one of those sleazebags on the plane. That could be trouble.”
Penny waved her off. “She’s in our first-class cabin. Once aboard, they won’t even see her again until they get to London.”
Of course, first class. That should have been obvious. There was little about Miss Hughes that said business traveler. “That’s good. Let’s hope she taught them a lesson.”
“I’ll inform our club manager and get word to Jeremy on board to cut them off. Thank you for letting us know.”
A nice feature of the British Airways lounge at Boston’s Logan Airport was its priority boarding and departure gate with a private Jetway, saving club members the trouble of returning to the concourse to line up with the mob. An agent had already propped open the door in preparation for the call to first class.
Boarding pass in hand, Lark located the object of her concern and took a seat a few feet away in the opposite row. From this new vantage point, she had an unfettered view. Miss Hughes was about her age—late twenties, early thirties—with blue-green eyes so bright they popped against her smooth peach complexion. Her sculpted nails were painted light coral, the same shade as her lipstick, and a dazzling sapphire ring decorated her left hand. The epitome of chic.
More remarkable than her features was her expression. Where Lark had expected to see aloofness or irritation after being so brazenly harassed, there was surprising vulnerability. Her vacant gaze and furrowed brow suggested faraway, sorrowful thoughts. That she might be anguished made Lark even more furious at the men who’d so boorishly pestered her.
The announcement for first class passengers to board created a stir throughout the lounge as travelers gathered their luggage and moved closer to the gate in anticipation. Moments after Miss Hughes proceeded down the jet bridge, angry voices erupted around the corner in the reception area. One of those voices was unmistakably Fred’s, the Dickhead in Chief who’d bribed Jimbo to act on his insult. “Christ Almighty! You can’t even tell a woman she’s pretty without her yelling sexual assault.”
Penny’s manager had wasted no time in confronting the men over her complaint. Lark anxiously heeded the call for Group Two, hoping to be well gone before they realized she was the one who’d reported them.
A flight attendant greeted her as she stepped aboard. “Welcome to British Airways. I’m Jeremy.” After checking her boarding pass, he leaned in and added, “Penny says I’m to look after you, luv. You’ll let me know if there’s anything you need?”
“Of course, thank you.” Walking past, she craned her neck for one last peek at Miss Hughes, but a gauzy blue curtain had been drawn to obscure the view of the forward cabin. For an obscene number of frequent flyer miles, Lark could have wrangled first class. She was too stingy for her own good.
After trudging longingly through business class, she located her seat on the aisle in the center section, quite a good location if one had to fly in coach. The biggest downside was the view forward, where she’d have to watch with envy as business travelers dined on a gourmet meal before folding their seats flat to sleep. If only she’d made her earlier flight…
She lifted her small wheeled suitcase to the overhead bin and stooped over to see if there was room for her backpack beneath the seat. A pair of feet came to a stop only inches from her head.
“It was you.”
“I beg your pardon?” She rose to find Vic looming over her, his beer breath fouling the air. Apparently his seat was in the back row of business class, barely three feet in front of hers.
“You had to go and tattle like some femi-nazi social warrior bitch. I hope you’re satisfied—you got Fred and Jimbo kicked off the plane.”
“Hunh…how about that? I am satisfied. Thanks for letting me know.”
“You cow…I bet you’re a lousy fuck.”
“Not what your wife says,” she replied, preening with a brush of her nails against her lapel. His befuddled expression was priceless.
Jeremy appeared suddenly and wedged all hundred-thirty pounds of himself in front of Vic. “Is there a problem here? Because I can sort it with one call to security.”
Vic’s eyes smoldered with drunken fury but he smartly bit his tongue.
“That’s what I thought.” Over his shoulder, he said to Lark, “Where’s your bag, luv? I have another seat for you.”
* * *
Channing waved off the flight attendant’s offer of champagne, a fine Grand Siècle. Bubbly was for celebrating, and she was having none of that today. “Gin and tonic, please.” She’d try not to dump this one in some wanker’s lap.
Most of her first-class companions were tucked into private compartments along the window. Her suite was paired with another in the center row, these designed for couples traveling together. As if she needed another vicious reminder of her wretched life. Seated alone in the open space, she felt exposed.
How bloody fitting that she’d completely forgotten to cancel Payton’s reservation. Now she could stare at the empty seat for the next seven hours. One last twist of the knife.
Asserting matter over mind, she forced her shoulders to relax against the cushy leather. Her suite was replete with a workstation she didn’t need, a state-of-the-art entertainment system she didn’t want, and a set of plush knit pajamas with the ostentatious First stitched onto the chest. Payton Crane would have appreciated such pampering.
“To expedite the boarding process, please step into your row to allow others to proceed.”
Squeezing her eyes tightly shut, she stifled a groan. A hundred years of commercial aviation and people still didn’t know how to board an aeroplane. How hard could it be to find a seat and sit your arse in it?
The interminable delay to takeoff compounded her misery. Getting out of Boston was the necessary first step to putting her life back together. How many women through the ages had thought their affair with the married boss would be the one in a million to end happily?
“This is you, darling—five-F.” A male flight attendant abruptly appeared in the opposite aisle, gesturing toward what would have been Payton’s seat.
The young woman who followed him stopped short, her eyes wide with surprise. “Are you serious?”
“Didn’t I promise to take care of you, luv?”
In the muted cabin light, Channing first thought her a teenager. The most obvious clues were the backpack on her shoulder and short honey-colored hair that looked, to put it bluntly, unattended. A pretentious coed setting off on a gap-year tour through Europe’s youth hostels on Mummy and Daddy’s dime.
Except instead of shredded denim, she wore neat ankle trousers with a cropped jacket, and gray textured flats. Office casual. Once she sat beneath the reading light, the faint lines of her smile were more apparent, putting her closer to Channing’s age.
So not a coed.
“Jeremy, this is incredible. Thank you.” She went to work right away manipulating her footrest and entertainment screen. “I was planning to sleep all the way to London but now I’ll have to stay awake so I can appreciate the perks.”
“Enjoy it, darling. I’ll speak with Muriel so she knows to treat you like a princess.”
Absolutely not. Channing couldn’t abide a chirpy seatmate fidgeting all night with her seat controls. She waved her fingers to catch the flight attendant’s eye. “I beg your pardon…Jeremy, is it? I do believe there’s been a slight mistake. I don’t mean to be inhospitable but I actually purchased both of these seats, you see. I assumed that meant I’d have the space to myself.” Her voice withered slightly under the woman’s incredulous glare.
“Oh dear, my paperwork shows it as open, Miss…” He ran his finger down a folded list. “There you are, Miss Hughes. Did you inform the ticketing agent of your intention to purchase a two-seat ticket for single travel?”
“I’m not familiar with the particulars. All I know is—”
“See, I show that five-F was originally ticketed to a Passenger Crane. Your intended companion perhaps? Except Mr. Crane failed to check in so his seat was returned to inventory. Those are the particulars I have.”
“Those are the particulars I have,” she snipped, mocking him under her breath. Then with gritted teeth, she added, “I don’t suppose you have another suite available…perhaps one by the window with a bit more privacy.”
“I’m so very sorry. It’s a full flight. But Miss Latimer’s previous seat is available in our economy section if you’re interested. Just hit that little button and Muriel will be happy to assist you with the move.”
As he disappeared behind them, Channing noted with displeasure that her face was warm, thus probably red. Humiliation always announced itself. Not only had she been condescendingly upbraided for what she considered a perfectly reasonable request, she now was left sitting in the company of someone who likely thought her a misanthrope. Not that she wasn’t.
“Well…that was awkward,” Miss Latimer said passively, her lips tightening in a barely discernible smile. She ran her hands along the armrests and wiggled her outstretched toes, the playful rejoinder of a bratty child who’d just tattled on her sister.
Channing was in no mood for such impishness…though she’d probably not get away with chucking another drink. “My apologies. I’ve had quite the miserable day and had deemed myself not fit for human company. I assure you it was nothing personal.”
“No offense taken.” Checking herself in a compact mirror, the woman tamed her disheveled hair with her fingertips, sweeping the curls into an orderly bob. Like any good haircut, it had the instant effect of raising her refinement level a notch. “If it makes you feel better, I’ve been on kind of a lousy streak too.”
“Please, I wouldn’t want to be the sort of person who’d feel better because someone else was miserable as well.”
“Like I said, no worries. Considering I’ve stacked a seven-hour flight on top of a fourteen-hour workday, I’m pretty sure I’ll be lights out right after dinner.”
Lovely. So on top of feeling like utter shite for what she’d already faced today, she could add embarrassing herself with a temper tantrum.
Muriel returned with her cocktail. Annoyingly pert in her trademark ascot and garrison cap, she squatted beside Channing to speak softly, “Did you happen to notice who’s on our flight? It’s Terrence Goff.”
Recognizing the name, Channing followed her eyes several rows ahead where the chiseled television star, a rugged Hollywood hero-type whom the gossip rags linked to starlets half his age, was hanging his blazer in a small closet next to his seat. Payton’s secretary gushed like a schoolgirl over his popular series, a firehouse drama filmed on location in Boston. Channing was utterly unimpressed.
“I only point him out because he asked if you were someone special.”
Oh, for the love of — “What did you tell him?”
“That all of our first class passengers are special, of course.” From Muriel’s coy smile, she relished her role as potential matchmaker. “I’d be quite pleased to make an introduction if you like.”
“I would not like, actually.” She’d rather be doused in petrol and set ablaze. She twirled the stone of her sapphire ring downward so it looked like a wedding band and positioned her hand so it was prominently displayed. “If he should ask again, would you please just inform him that I’m no one he should know?”
No sooner had Muriel walked away than Goff caught her eye and flashed a blinding smile. To her horror, he strutted the few steps toward her seat, teeming with self-assuredness.
“Oh, bloody hell,” she muttered, swiveling abruptly toward the seatmate she’d just abused in hopes of dissuading him with the appearance of being engaged in conversation. A pointless exercise, she realized, as his spicy cologne announced his arrival.
The woman, Miss Latimer, reached casually across the dividing console and took her hand. “Sweetheart, did you remember to stop the newspaper?”
“I…” Seconds ticked by before she grasped that she’d been thrown a lifeline. “Yes…yes, I called them this morning.”
As the actor’s footsteps made a hasty retreat, Latimer held her gaze. And her hand as well. By her devilish smirk, she was exceedingly pleased with herself. “That should keep him out of your hair.”
Stunned to silence, Channing drew her hand back ever so slowly, as though she’d been petting a dog she was worried might bite. Or maybe she was the dog, too fearful to trust a simple gesture of kindness.
There was always that one arsehole. In this case it was Terrence Goff, who’d raised his window shade to enjoy the Arctic sunrise. Never mind that it was still the middle of the night in Boston and everyone else aboard the flight was trying to sleep.
Not everyone, Channing conceded. Her seatmate had kept her promise to go to sleep immediately after dining but now was up and about, presumably in the loo preparing herself for arrival. On her seat was an unzipped overnight bag, its luggage tag identifying her as Lark E. Latimer, MD. Perhaps on her way to an international medical conference.
Her snap judgement of Latimer as a privileged slacker obviously had been well off the mark. To say nothing of the fact that her own impending inheritance of millions hardly left her in a position to scoff at someone else’s entitlement.
Muriel materialized at her shoulder with a breakfast menu. “Tea or coffee?”
“Tea, please.” Of the things she missed most about England, a proper cuppa tea was high on the list.
Latimer returned, a fresher version of the woman who’d plopped into the seat last night on the verge of exhaustion. She’d changed into a shirtwaist dress, its hem well above her knee. A touch of makeup smoothed her complexion and highlighted her unusual eye color, an amber tint that almost perfectly matched her hair. Quite attractive, Channing decided. A pleasant personality would easily carry her across the line.
“Here you are,” Muriel said, depositing a tea tray. “And for you?”
“I’ll have tea also,” Latimer replied.
Rested and in a more charitable mood than the night before, Channing felt compelled to prove she could be personable. “I’d have pegged you for coffee.”
“A few years ago, you’d have been right. I switched to tea when my work started taking me abroad. Turns out there’s a lot of really bad instant coffee out there.”
“And a lot of bad tea as well.”
“I suppose, but my tea palate isn’t refined enough to know bad tea from good.” She put away her toiletry bag and swapped her flats for woven leather pumps with sturdy heels. Other than the daring hem, it was an understated business look that didn’t boast of power. If she was headed to a conference, she clearly hoped to blend into the background. Except eyes as remarkable as hers wouldn’t allow her to go unnoticed.
“Then I take it you’ve not yet come to blows over when to add the milk,” Channing said.
“How about I take my cues from you, assuming you’re the expert?” She proffered a friendly smile and held out her hand for a shake. “I’m Lark Latimer, by the way.”
Channing took her hand, remembering its spirited warmth from when she’d briefly held it the night before. By her mental calculation they were almost two hours from landing. A bit long for mindless prattle, but it was too late to retreat from a conversation she’d initiated. “Channing Hughes.”
“You’re heading home?”
Escaping Boston was more like it. “It would seem so, yes. Not exactly the prodigal return I’d planned.” Her dream for this particular trip had been two years in the making, a chance at last to show Payton some of the people and places that meant so much to her. That fantasy was now a steaming pile of—
“That’s the movie for you. It never quite measures up to the book,” Lark said.
“You have no idea.” Deflecting the subject, she nodded toward the small suitcase. “Looks to be a quick trip for you. Conference?”
“Oh, this is just the stuff I needed for the plane. I checked a monster suitcase. No telling where it is now though. I was supposed to be on the earlier flight but I got hung up in security. Logan drives me crazy sometimes.”
“Logan’s a walk in the park compared to Heathrow. Glad I’m not connecting.”
“Ditto.” Lark stowed her suitcase just in time for Muriel to deliver her tea. “All right, I’m ready for my tea lesson. How much milk and when?”
“First, you must allow the tea to steep for four and a half minutes. No more, no less.” She seized Lark’s forearm as she grasped the tag that hung from her ceramic teapot. “Leave it be. It’s not swill.”
“Sorry, my bad.”
“While you wait, you might start with a few drops of milk—a tablespoon should do nicely.” She meticulously prepared her own cup in demonstration and took a sip. “There, perfect. Sugar if you must, though a more sophisticated palate might prefer a biscuit on the side.”
“Really, what kind of savage would add sugar?”
“Certainly not a proper tea snob.” Channing mentally conceded that Lark’s appreciation of her sardonic humor redeemed her overall as an otherwise unwelcome seatmate. “Yours should be ready soon.”
“I have twenty-eight more seconds…twenty-two…sixteen.”
“Oh, go on. Don’t be such a literalist.”
Lark poured haltingly as the jet skipped over a couple of bumps. “I don’t suppose anyone has ever pointed out that you’re kind of intimidating?”
“Yes, that… I truly am sorry for trying to have you evicted from first class. You struck me as a tad over-stimulated. I thought perhaps you should be somewhere more restrained. For your own safety, of course.”
“That’s really quite touching, such concern for someone you’d never even met,” she replied drolly, proving she too could play the sardonic game. “Seriously though, I get why you might have been annoyed. You weren’t expecting company and then I came and crashed your space.”
“Crashed my pity party is more like it.”
“Any chance it gets better now that you’re heading back home?”
“Hard to say, actually. Home isn’t what it used to be.” With her beloved Poppa now gone, she was the last leaf on the Hughes tree. “My grandfather’s not here anymore. He died in early March.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Very kind of you to say.” Though Poppa’s death had little to do with her current mood. “Barely two days after I returned from his funeral, my relationship ended—not my idea—so there’s another loss to process. A rather disastrous office affair…as if there’s any other kind. It makes for a wretched working environment once it’s over. So wretched that yesterday morning I cleaned out my desk and resigned.”
“Wow. And you’re already sitting on a plane to London.”
“Oh, I was going anyway to settle the estate, but I’d hoped Payton was coming too, which is why I’d purchased two tickets.” Such blathering was so very American. Yanks vented their emotions at the slightest provocation, whereas the British were more stoic. Channing was neither and both, having lived half of her life in each place. “And I have literally no idea what I’m going to do next.”
“Look at it this way—you get to start over. The world is your oyster.”
“I suppose if one fancies mollusks… I know, I know. Crack one open and perhaps there’s a pearl inside.”
“Exactly. And there’s only a moderate risk of contracting hepatitis.” A deadpan delivery, very British. “So an office romance, huh? We have a gross saying for that…something about not making a mess where you eat.”
“That would have been helpful advice if I’d thought to heed it. Especially since it was my boss,” she whispered. “My married boss.”
Lark wrinkled her nose ever so slightly.
“Oh, I saw that—bit of a sneer.”
“I didn’t sneer.”
“You most certainly did. But I won’t hold it against you. Everyone judges. It’s precisely why we keep such affairs secret, even after they’ve run their course. There’s no such thing as a sympathetic home wrecker.”
“I’m sure it’s never as simple as people make it out to be.”
“Simply ruinous if we’re being honest.” The worst of it was the complete surrender of her self-respect. “It never had a chance really. There was always Payton’s loving family, Payton’s important job. An imbecile could have predicted it would end horribly. I blame myself for allowing her to string me along for two bloody years. All the while she got to have her cake and eat it too.”
“It’s not like any of us have control over who we—” Lark’s jaw went suddenly slack, as if frozen before a glib thought could escape her lips. “Her?”
Channing couldn’t help her wry smile. Payton had been right about that—no one would ever suspect an office affair between women, especially if one was married to a man. That presumption had provided them the necessary cover to carry on under everyone’s noses.
Amused by Lark’s flummoxed expression, she stood and stretched. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I should freshen up before all these men realize they smell dreadful and need a shave.”
* * *
In a million years, Lark would never have guessed a woman like Channing Hughes batted for her team. Funny how first impressions took root. The context in which she’d first seen her—with the “three little pigs” harassing her in the lounge—seated her firmly in Lark’s mind as a woman whose style and seductive sway invited the appreciation of men.
“My bad,” she mumbled, chiding herself. “My so bad.”
Channing had gone curiously quiet following her startling admission, busying herself with a magazine after returning from the lavatory. Completely stupefied by the arousing mental image of Channing with another woman, Lark had blown her chance for an appropriate reply. Anything she said now would sound contrived or gratuitous.
As the jet touched down on the runway, she reviewed her landing card and made sure the rest of her documents were easy to access. The worst part of the journey was still to come. First was getting her extended work permit through passport control. Then she had to clear customs with her gigantic suitcase and somehow get all of her luggage from Heathrow to King’s Cross and onto a train. Stairs and ramps and doors and tickets.
Pointing toward the burgundy passport that marked Channing as a citizen of the UK, she casually offered, “Lucky you. You’ll be home having lunch before I’m even out of the airport.”
“Likely not, but I suppose that process is rather a series of hoops, is it not?” Channing nodded to Lark’s lap, where the papers related to her work visa protruded from her US passport. “Looks as if you’re planning to stay a while.”
“Three or four weeks at least, maybe longer. One of the projects I’ve been overseeing went sideways and I need to figure out whether it’s just a run-of-the-mill fiasco or a colossal…”
“Good word. Perfect word, in fact.”
“Yes, the etymologists really outdid themselves on that one. I noticed your luggage tag. You’re a medical doctor?”
“I am…sort of. No, I am.” It was nuts that she couldn’t seem to answer such a straightforward question. “I went to medical school but decided not to do a residency. Practically speaking, that means I have four years of medical training that I’m not allowed to use on anyone. So don’t go choking on a grape. I’d have to watch you die.”
“That would be bloody awkward.”
Lark laughed, relieved by Channing’s smile and willingness to chat again.
Muriel announced a welcome to London, where the local time was nine thirty-five a.m. It would take several minutes to taxi to their gate. Meanwhile, chimes erupted all over the first class cabin as phones connected to wireless networks, including Lark’s. She quickly texted confirmation of her arrival to Wendi Doolan, the woman who was to meet her at the train station.
“Oh look, it’s a notification from British Airways that my baggage is now available at Carousel Five—three hours ago. It must have made the flight I missed.”
Absorbed in her own messages, Channing showed no sign of having heard her remark. “I see… Let the games begin.” She jabbed at her phone to delete the offending note.
“Not for me. Someone has her knickers in a twist because I resigned without explanation. Far more sensible than the actual truth, don’t you agree?”
“I don’t know how you stayed there at all, even just for a couple of months. Working with an ex…” She cringed at the idea of having to face Bess every day at the office, even though their breakup had been mostly civilized.
“It wasn’t pleasant but at least I was professional about it, which is more than I can say for her. We used to travel a lot together—client meetings and the like. Made quite a good team, actually. All of a sudden she can’t do that anymore, because evidently we can’t be alone together, not even in the bloody copy room. So she hired an absolute pillock to our team—Boyd Womack—who must be someone’s nephew. There’s no other explanation for how he made it through the door.”
Lark didn’t dare say it, but she could see why Payton wouldn’t want to travel alone with someone as tempting as Channing. Perhaps she was worried about her resolve.
“But now apparently even that’s too much.” She stowed her phone and began collecting the personal items she’d brought aboard in a Louis Vuitton shoulder bag. “I’d been looking forward to this trip home for months, a break from all the melodrama. Then Payton sends me a bloody email from her office ten feet away to say she’ll not be traveling anymore, that when I return, I’m to take over client meetings and Boyd will accompany me. Her top analyst reduced to being a bloody nanny. So I dumped all of my office knickknacks into a rubbish bin and left my resignation on the desk.”
“Gutsy.” Her top analyst. Funny how only hours ago Lark had assumed she couldn’t possibly be a businesswoman. “I don’t blame you a bit. I’d have done the same thing.”
“But now Payton is having to field queries about my sudden departure. She’s rather desperate to have me confirm with Human Resources her version of events—that I became homesick for England, what with my grief over Poppa’s unexpected death. Mustn’t have anyone think it had anything to do with sexual harassment, no matter that she deliberately drove me to quit.”
“You don’t have to play her game.” Which sounded ridiculous coming from Lark. Women like Channing already knew that.
“I don’t intend to. I have my own game this time.”
“Does it involve dumping a drink in her lap?”
“You saw that?”
“It was epic.”
“It was, wasn’t it?” Channing pursed her lips in a half smile, but it didn’t last. She was clearly still annoyed by Payton’s message.
Upon arrival at the gate, Muriel directed those in the first class cabin toward the exit. Jeremy, who was holding back business and coach passengers to let them pass, gave her a small wave.
“Thanks again,” Lark told him. “You’re the best.”
In the unending corridors of Heathrow, Lark once again found herself mesmerized by Channing’s sensual gait, now synchronized with the thump of Lark’s rolling suitcase along the seams of the tile floor. It was devastatingly sexy, especially now that Lark knew she was gay.
Furthermore, she’d accidentally confirmed that her lovely breasts were quite real. In the night, she’d lingered on a fleshy mound through the gap in Channing’s jumpsuit while she was dozing upright in her seat. No unnatural curves, no sculpted spacing. Gravity in action.
Channing, the enigma—at times almost friendly, then instantly irascible and aloof. The top analyst who dressed like a model for Elle. Who’d had an adulterous affair with her lady boss. And who now waffled between cynicism and spite, with an occasional hint of hopefulness.
Lark was taken aback by her emotional investment. It was irrational to feel such empathy for someone who’d admittedly earned her misery through her own questionable choices. Yet from the moment Channing had walked through the British Airways lounge, Lark had been captivated. Then Fate had dropped her in the adjacent seat. Now she wanted to trade phone numbers and meet up in the city for—
“God, this walk takes forever,” Channing suddenly groused, her first words since leaving the plane. “Terminal Five might as well be in bloody Wales.”
“And here I was thinking how nice it was they gave us all this time to stretch our legs.”
“Are you always so cheery in the morning? I should think that would be bothersome for the cohabitant.”
The word surprised her, leading her back through their conversations of the last seven hours. Though she’d taken Channing’s hand to dissuade the attentions of Terrence Goff, she hadn’t explicitly revealed herself as gay. Not even when Channing said she was. As squandered opportunities went, that one was mammoth. “My ex-girlfriend found it annoying too.”
Channing cast a sidelong look as they neared a sign directing European Union citizens one way and everyone else the other. “So you’re gay as well?”
“Hmm…odd that I missed that. Though I suppose I should have known when you clutched my hand so aggressively and called me sweetheart.”
“My secret signal. It’s a little too subtle for some people.”
Channing ignored her remark as she came to an abrupt stop. “Looks like my queue is this way, Dr. Lark Latimer. I wish you a pleasant stay in jolly old England, though I can’t promise my fellow countrymen will return your morning cheerfulness. Most are like me, I’m afraid, a bit on the stiff side.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself. You weren’t a total bitch. There was that one moment when you were asleep…”
Channing rolled her eyes and actually laughed. “Very well, I deserved that.”
“Seriously, I have a feeling this will turn out to be a good move for you. Payton’s loss is some lucky lady’s gain.”
“Thank you.” She walked backward a few steps, giving Lark one last chance to appreciate her gracefulness. “Don’t forget—the milk always comes first.”
“Got it.” Gripped with disappointment at goodbye, Lark blurted, “I don’t suppose there’s any chance you’d like to…”
Too late. Channing had turned away.
A familiar hollowness enveloped her as she continued alone down the hallway. Some days her life felt like a string of random scenes that never added up to a book. Thwarted plans, fleeting relationships.
Her mood lifted as she turned the corner and instantly noted her favorite perk of flying first class—she was at the front of the line for passport control. The agent scrupulously processed her work permit, but she still made it through in record time and picked up her lonely bag from the deserted Carousel 5. With nothing to declare to customs, she turned in her card and breezed through the arrivals area looking for signage to the Piccadilly Line.
A small crowd waited to greet arriving passengers, a scene she rarely noticed except for today. An elderly gentleman, smartly dressed in a three-piece suit and driving cap, held a hand-printed sign: Lady Channing Hughes.
Lady Channing Hughes.