Making my way to check in, I fumble through using the ticket machine and my new identification and then track a path to security. A few minutes later, I’m on the other side of the metal detectors and I stop at a store to buy random things I might need. All is going well until I arrive at the ticket counter.
“I’m so sorry, Ms. Bensen,” the forty-something woman begins. “We had an administrative error and seats were double-booked. We—”
“I have to be on this flight,” I say in a hiss whispered with my heart in my throat. “I have to be on this flight.”
“I can get you a voucher and the first flight tomorrow.”
“No. No. Tonight. Give someone a bigger voucher to get me a seat.”
“Talk to a supervisor,” I insist, because while avoiding attention means I am not a pushy person, and despite my initial denial of my circumstances that might suggest otherwise, I have no death wish. I am alive and plan to stay that way.
She purses her lips and looks like she might argue, but finally she turns away and makes a path toward a man in uniform. Their heads dip low and he glances at me before the woman returns. “We have you on standby and we’ll try to get you on.”
“How likely is it you’ll get me on?”
“We’re going to try.”
“Try how hard?”
Her lips purse again. “Very.”
I let out a sigh of relief. “Thank you. And I’m sorry. I have a…crisis of sorts. I really have to get to my destination.” There is a thread of desperation to my voice I do not contain well.
Her expression softens and I know she heard it. “I understand and I am sorry this happened,” she assures me. “We are trying to make this right and so you don’t panic please know that we have to get everyone boarded before we make any passenger changes. You’ll likely be the last on the plane.”
“Thanks,” I say, feeling awkward. “I’ll just go sit.” Definitely flustered, I turn away from the counter. Ignoring the few vacant seats, I head to the window and settle my bags on the floor beside me. Leaning against the steel handrail on the glass, I position myself to see everyone around me to be sure I’m prepared for any problem before it’s on me. And that’s when the room falls away, when my gaze collides with his.
He is sitting in a seat that faces me, one row between us, his features handsomely carved, his dark hair a thick, rumpled finger temptation. He’s dressed in faded jeans and a dark blue t-shirt, but he could just as easily be wearing a finely fitted suit and tie. He is older than me, maybe thirty, but there is a worldliness, a sense of control and confidence, about him that reaches beyond years. He is money, power, and sex, and while I cannot make out the color of his eyes, I don’t need to. All that matters is that he is one hundred percent focused on me, and me on him.
A moment ago I was alone in a crowd and suddenly, I’m with him. As if the space between us is nothing. I tell myself to look away, that everyone is a potential threat, but I just…can’t.
His eyes narrow the tiniest bit, and then his lips curve ever so slightly and I am certain I see satisfaction slide over his face. He knows I cannot look away. I’ve become his newest conquest, of which I am certain he has many, and I’ve embarrassingly done so without one single moan of pleasure in the process.
“Inviting our first-class guests to board now,” a female voice says over the intercom.
I blink and my new, hmmm, whatever he is, pushes to his feet and slides a duffle onto his shoulder. His eyes hold mine, a hint of something in them I can’t quite make out. Challenge, I think. Challenge? What kind of challenge? I don’t have time to figure it out. He turns away, and just like that I’m alone again.
Everyone has boarded the plane but me. I am alone in the gate area aside from a few airline personnel, and I feel vulnerable and exposed with no crowd to hide me. I’m already thinking through my options for the evening if I don’t make this flight, when my new name is called. “Your lucky day, Ms. Bensen,” the attendant says as I approach the counter. “You’ve been bumped to first class.”
I blink in surprise, and not just at the oddity of being called Ms. Bensen. “Are you sure?
“How much extra?” I ask, unsure of how much money I have on the card I’ve been given, unable to use my personal savings for fear of being tracked. I’m not even sure the little bit my extra holiday jobs allowed me would cover it.
“No cost to you,” she assures me, smiling and motioning to my ticket. “Let me fix your paperwork so you can hurry along before they seal the doors and you still miss your flight.”
“Yes,” I say quickly. “Thank you.”
I rush down the walkway to my flight, and despite my relief at scoring a seat, the realness of leaving New York punches me in the gut. Everything I’ve come to know as my world is here and I haven’t felt this helpless since…a long time ago. I can’t think about what happened. I don’t think about it. That’s when the nightmares start, and so does the fear. This isn’t the time to let the terror control me. I have no idea what I will face in the next few hours and days.
“Welcome aboard,” a flight attendant says cheerfully as I reach the plane, and somehow I muster a half-smile before making my way to row seven, where there are only two seats. My aisle assignment is empty as expected, and—impossibly, after they’ve told me the airline was overbooked—the one by the window also appears empty. Hope that I might be alone is dashed when I note the bag stored beneath the seat, which tells me my companion is nearby. I sigh. It would suit me just fine to slip into my leather seat and shut my eyes before whoever it is returns, but alas, that’s simply not an option. I have luggage to store and a file to study.