Temporarily Yours (A Shillings Agency Novel) (Entangled Brazen)
by Jen McLaughlin
Cooper eyed the crowded airport with all of the excitement of a prisoner looking at his solitary confinement cell. Festive red, green, and white shades of the holiday season surrounded him, and every single boarding area looked identical to the next. Then again, didn’t they always? Crying kids, harrowed mothers, fathers on their phones, and kids playing with their Christmas toys filled almost every single chair.
Weren’t people supposed to stop dressing like it was Christmas after the twenty-sixth? Or maybe it was his inescapable Scrooge-iness making him feel that way. He hadn’t been merry on Christmas, and he hadn’t been happy on New Year’s, either.
He hadn’t been happy in a long damn time.
He rubbed his eyes and scanned the seating area. There was one empty chair left, next to a gorgeous brown haired woman in a red turtleneck sweater, matching heels, and a black knee-length skirt. With a face and legs like those, she was probably saving the seat for her husband—some lucky bastard who probably didn’t appreciate her as he should.
She looked up at him, as if she sensed his scrutiny, but quickly looked back down at her iPhone. The contact was brief, but even so, he saw the flare of appreciation in those bright blue eyes as she dropped her head.
She liked what she saw—missing husband or no.
He approached her, his focus locked on her the whole time. He stopped when he got close enough to speak without calling across the room, opened his mouth, and then—
“Hey, Mister. You’re on my coat.”
Just as Cooper turned to apologize to the child speaking, the kid slammed a candy cane into Cooper’s stomach—pointy end first. Another kid pulled the jacket out from under Cooper’s feet, and he stumbled backward. He hit the floor so hard his breath whooshed out of him in a painful wheeze. His face was turned toward the gate, where the attendant gaped at him, and a red heel rested on the floor beside his head.
Damn it, he recognized those heels.
“Are you okay?” the woman asked. Though her question was one expressing concern, he couldn’t help but hear the amusement in there, too. “Do you need help getting up?”
Turning his head, he followed the line of her knockout legs, all the way up until he could see her angelic face, framed by the most touchable brown hair he’d ever seen. He would not look any lower. If not for the way she held her knees together, he would be getting arrested for being a peeping tom, for Christ’s sake.
He was literally in between her legs, his head halfway under her chair.
Still seated, she bent over him awkwardly, looking down at him with a wrinkled brow and shining blue eyes. Though he had been fantasizing about her legs, he hadn’t exactly wanted to get close to them in this way.
Cursing under his breath, he scooted down and away from her on his back, feeling a bit like an overturned turtle, then rolled to his feet as gracefully as he could manage under the circumstances. Smoothing his jacket over his arms, he ducked his head to hide his hot cheeks. “No, I’m fine. Thank you.”
As he straightened the collar of his jacket, he eyed the fair-skinned beauty. The concern was gone, and she was doing a poor job of hiding a smile behind her hand. Hell, he even saw a dimple.
She pointed to his stomach. The candy cane that the child had speared him with hung from his brand new cashmere sweater—with the help of a coating of saliva and sugar.
“I’m so sorry!” the horrified mother said, grabbing her son and pushing him behind her body for protection, as if she was worried Cooper might attack. “I think he’s been watching too many superhero movies.”
“Are you saying I look like a villain?” he asked with a smile on his face, trying to set the woman at ease. When the mother opened her mouth to reply, he shook his head and patted her arm. “No harm done. Really.” With two fingers, Cooper removed the sticky weapon from his sweater and handed it over. “Don’t worry about it.”
The mother smiled with gratitude and took the gooey mess without flinching. “Thank you for being so understanding.”
Once he turned his back to her, he let the smile fade away. Eyeing his sticky fingers in disgust, he looked for the nearest water fountain. He didn’t want to wander too far and risk the chance of missing takeoff. He already knew there wouldn’t be another open flight to North Carolina with an available seat until tomorrow night at ten, and he needed to be on this one.
Sure, he didn’t have to leave this early. He could’ve easily pushed his departure back a few days. He didn’t have to report for his new job until next week. But he needed to escape his father’s incessant pressure. He didn’t approve of Cooper going back overseas. He felt Cooper should stay continental and work for him at the company he had formed specifically for military dropouts.
Dropouts like Cooper.
Yeah. Thanks, but no thanks.
“Would you like a Wet One?” a musical voice asked, tickling over his senses and ripping him from his thoughts. Without even looking, he knew who had spoken. It was the woman in the turtleneck whom he’d practically landed on…or under, rather.
“A wet what?” He turned slowly, his brow raised. She was holding what looked like a baby wipe in her right hand and a container in her left. He couldn’t help but notice she didn’t wear a wedding ring. So there was no husband? Smiling, he reached out and took the offered wipe. “Oh. Sure. Thank you. Is that seat taken?”
“No, you can have it.” She gazed up at him, sending his heart rate through the roof, and then looked away. There was something about her that made him forget about everything that had been hanging over his head the past year. And, man, he needed that right now. Scooting her long legs out of the way, she smiled and motioned him to sit. “That kid came out of nowhere, huh?”
“Like a ninja warrior,” he agreed, getting comfortable on the chair. He quirked his lips at the amusement in her eyes. “Thanks for letting me know I still had the weapon stuck on my shirt.”
She laughed. Damn, but she had an adorable laugh. “You’re welcome.”
“I was so worried about being late and missing this flight, I hadn’t even figured getting attacked into the equation.” He cleaned off his sweater with the wipe and dropped the Wet One into the trashcan next to him. If she carried those things around in her purse, one of these rug rats running around might be hers. “Thanks for the wipe, by the way. You carry them around for your children?”
“Oh, God, no. I don’t even have a husband, let alone kids. If I were going to have kids, I would be married for at least two years beforehand. By then, people pass the mark where one in twelve marriages fail. I personally think they fall apart around then because that’s when the attraction wears off, and the couple looks for that draw elsewhere. Bringing kids into the equation before that whole mess is foolish.” She smoothed her curly brown hair and flushed, then hastily tucked a wayward strand behind her ear. “Not that you asked about my beliefs in the institute of marriage. I’m sorry. I know I’m babbling.”
“Believe it or not, that was my next question,” he said, grinning. “Tell me, how do you feel about the four-year mark? Is that a catastrophe, too?”
“Don’t even get me started on what happens at four years…if you even make it that far. Most of the time, they—” She broke off and gave a strangled laugh. “I’m sorry. You’re clearly just asking these questions to be nice, or to humor me or whatever, and I’m answering in way too much detail. Like, way, way too much detail. I’m just nervous. Really, really nervous.” She paused and cocked her head. “And now I’m repeating myself a good quarter of this conversation, too. Lovely. Just lovely.”
He studied her with new curiosity. What she thought embarrassing, he found refreshing. Where did she find her statistics from, anyway? How the hell did she know that one in twelve marriages fail at the two-year mark?
Time to find out.
“Let me guess. Divorce lawyer? Marriage counselor?”
She scoffed. “Worse. I’m an actuary—quite possibly the most boring job to ever exist.”
“You don’t look boring to me,” he said, his voice husky. He blinked. Wait, why did his voice change? What the fuck? “Quite the opposite.”
She shot him a surprised look. “Are you flirting with me?”
Did she actually ask him if he was flirting with her? Fascinating. “And if I am?”
“Well, uh.” Her cheeks flushed red and she fidgeted with her skirt. “Thanks, I guess? It’s a welcome distraction, if nothing else.”
Wow. That almost hurt. He bit the inside of his cheek to stop himself from smiling. She was just…so refreshingly different. “That’s all? I must be losing my touch.”
She tucked another loose curl behind her ear, as if trying to hide nervousness. “I wouldn’t know, having just met you. Plus, I’m hardly an expert, being an actuary.”
He laughed. He hadn’t had this much fun talking to a stranger in…well, ever. “Is there a rule that actuaries are bad judges of character?”