Jessica sat aboard the large 747 airplane listening to the soft hum of the engine as it jetted across the sky. It lulled her dreamily and she marveled at how peaceful it was on a plane at night. She glanced around at the sleeping passengers. A flight attendant came and tapped her gently on the shoulder.
“Is something wrong?” she inquired softly.
Jessica shook her head. “No, nothing’s wrong,” she assured her. “I’m just having a little trouble sleeping this evening.”
She nodded her head in understanding. “Many people have trouble sleeping on a plane. Just let me know if you need anything.”
“Thank you,” Jessica said as she watched her make her way back down the plane, stopping now and then to fluff pillows and retrieve stray blankets as she tucked in the weary travelers.
Jessica looked over at John sleeping peacefully beside her and frowned. How is it he always manages to sleep so deeply, no matter what the circumstances are? She turned her head and stared out the window.
As if sensing someone intruding on his dreams, John stirred and opened his eyes.
“Jessie,” he whispered softly. “Why are you still awake? It’s nearly three in the morning.”
She turned and looked at him. “I’m sorry if I woke you. I’m having an awful time trying to sleep.”
“Is something wrong? Do you want to talk about something?”
“No. It’s okay.” She patted his hand. “You go back to sleep.”
“Okay, if you’re sure.”
She nodded and watched as John pulled the blanket closer to his chest and shifted his body sideways.
“Hmm,” he moaned.
“I was just thinking about this trip.”
“What about it?” he mumbled.
“Never mind, it can wait. I’m sorry I disturbed you again.”
“Okay. Good night, Jess.”
“Good night, John.”
She sat in silence for a minute, reflecting back to her conversation with Clair.
“John, does something about this trip seem strange to you?”
He sighed and sat up in his seat. “Okay. I’m awake now. You might as well tell me what’s on your mind.”
“I was just thinking about how awkward this trip feels to me. What I mean is out-of-the-blue Clair calls me into her office and asks me if I want to go to Australia. The next thing I know, here we are on a plane, in the middle of the night, halfway to a place I have always wanted to go, yet never even dreamed of getting to. Don’t you think that’s a little odd?”
He shrugged. “Maybe, but we have taken on spontaneous clients before.”
“True, but halfway around the world, on virtually a moment’s notice? She gave me no time to prepare, hardly any time to pack, and she divulged very little information about the project itself. All I know is we are to be met at the airport by a representative of the company.”
“By the way, what company are we working for?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know.”
John raised his eyebrows. “Now that does seem odd. What do you mean you don’t know? Did you ask?”
“Of course, I asked. In fact, she handed me our written itinerary, but that piece of information was missing. I specifically asked her whom we were to meet. Then her phone rang, and she dismissed me from her office. I went back later to talk to her, but she had disappeared. Her secretary told me she had gone home for the day. She had left our plane tickets on her desk. And why is it just you and me on this trip? No technicians, no models, no wardrobe personnel, no equipment.”
He shook his head. “You’re the one who’s the head photographer. I’m just your assistant, remember. You’re the one who’s supposed to find out all the details about a planned trip.”
“Maybe I would have felt a little better if I could have spoken to Brandon before I left.”
“I thought you called him.”
“I did, but he was out for the day and wasn’t expected to return to the ranch until late. I left a message for him, but he never called back. After that, I was too busy getting ready to go. I didn’t get a chance to call back again.”
He patted her hand softly. “Well, don’t worry. You can call him from the airport when we land in Sydney.”
She smiled in response to his support. “Tell me what you think of Brandon.”
“Whoa—loaded question. I’d better watch out for the ricochets.” He laughed but received no response from her. “Honestly though, I think he’s a fine man. I’m a little concerned because things have moved so quickly for the two of you. But it’s your happiness I care about, so, if he makes you happy, then I’m happy, too.”
“Thanks. I needed to hear someone say he supported me. But you know, he makes me feel important, as if there is someone in this world who thinks about me when he wakes in the morning, and when he lays his head on the pillow at night. He’s fascinated about what I do and who I am, and I love hearing about his life. I cannot stand it when we’re apart. He makes me feel—less lonely.”
He pulled her roughly toward him in a big bear hug. “Hey, what do you mean less lonely. You have all of us, your friends; you are well loved.”
“I appreciate that. But it’s not the same. You have Eric, Amy has Randy, and even Mom has Grant. I love Brandon.”
“I know what you mean. It is different having someone special in your life. We need to get some sleep now; we have a big day tomorrow.”
She nodded and pulled her own blanket around her as John snuggled back down into his seat. He reached over, grabbed her hand, and pulled it under the blanket with his. She was lucky to have him for a friend. It’s too bad he’s gay, she told herself; he would have made such a good catch. Then again, she supposed he wouldn’t be John if he were any different.
If only she had been able to talk to Brandon. She hadn’t liked leaving the country without telling him first. She would do what John suggested and phone him from the airport. With this thought, her spirits lifted, allowing her finally to drift off to sleep. She was startled awake by an announcement over the loud speaker.
“Please fasten your seat belts and bring your tray tables to an upright position,” the flight attendant instructed over the loud speaker, “and please place all packages under your seat or in the overhead compartment until we have landed,” she added. She began her inspection up and down the aisles, making sure all passengers had obeyed.
Jessica did as instructed. Then she reached over and grabbed John’s hand, squeezing it tightly. She smiled brightly at him. “Well, it looks like this is it.”
He smiled in return. “Are you feeling better today?”
She nodded. “Yes, I am. Thank you so much for our chat. It did wonders for my spirits.”
Within minutes, the plane had come to a stop, and passengers began crowding their way off the plane. Jessica and John held back, searching through their belongings for their passports. They found them at the same time and held them up in triumphant unison. They laughed, then stood and made their way up the aisle and through the crowd gathered near the plane’s entrance.
“I’ll be right back,” Jessica said the minute they entered the terminal. “I need to try to reach Brandon again.”
“Is something wrong with your cell phone? I can let you borrow mine.”
“No thanks. My phone is working, sometimes. I’m having terrible reception, though. Besides, the rates will break me. I’ll use a calling card. She ran off to make her call.
When she returned, she was frowning. She flopped down on the bench next to John. As he reached across her to throw some trash into a receptacle, she leaned against him, despaired.
“What’s the matter? Is he still not home?”
“No, he’s home, but he’s out riding around the ranch. I talked to his brother, Matthew. He promised to let him know that I arrived safely. I just hate the fact that Matthew has to be the one to tell him I left the country.
“Any sign of our ride?” she asked, glancing around the airport. Just then, she noticed a familiar figure striding toward them. She nearly fainted with shock and dismay as the room spun and things went black before her eyes. John caught her and shook her softly.
“Jess, what is it? Are you all right?”
She somehow managed to catch her breath. “I don’t believe it. Look who we’re working for.”
John followed her gaze, stared in mutual disbelief at the approaching figure. “Isn’t that Phillip Stewart?”
She shook her head. “Can you believe it? Why? Why him of all people? What a dirty trick. I’ll get Clair for this.” She spun to greet him.
“Good day,” he called exuberantly. He tried to pick up Jessica’s hand, but she yanked it back in protest. He didn’t seem the slightest bit perturbed, but turned instead and extended his hand to John.
John looked nervously about, and then reluctantly extended his own hand in return. Jessica, incensed, slapped it back and glared at John. He only shrugged.
Phillip laughed. “Still my spit fire I see.”
“I demand to know what you are doing here,” she spewed.
“I think that’s rather obvious; I’m employing you.”
“I know that, fool, but why? I’d rather camp in a viper pit.”
He took a step back, pretending to be hurt. He clutched his chest and then held his hands out, spreading them in front of her.
“I need a good photographer and you’re the best. It’s that simple. I’ll be your host for the next few weeks, so relax, and enjoy my hospitality.”
“Host!” she screamed. “You mean hoax, don’t you? You brought me here on the pretense of working, but you have no such thing in mind, do you Mr. Stewart?”
“Oh, but I do, Jessica. That’s such a beautiful name, by the way. I do so love that name. Don’t you love that name, John? But really, Jessica, you insult me. Would I waste your valuable time by ushering you all the way to another country for a bogus job?”
She eyed him suspiciously. “Then where are my models, my lights, my technicians, make-up artist, and the rest of my crew?”
“That’s all taken care of. You will have models galore at your disposal. Beautiful models I might add. I wanted native Australians. They give much more authenticity to the scene.”
“Well, you can forget it; we’re not staying. Come on, John, we’re leaving.”
He held up a hand to stop her. “I think you’ll find that impossible, dear. You see, it’s the end of the tourist season here, and I’m afraid all the flights back to the states will be booked solid. You won’t be able to get a return flight for a least a couple of days. So why don’t you just make the most of my hospitality. Enjoy the time you spend here. Australia is a beautiful country.”
She attempted to push her way past him, but he blocked her. She narrowed her eyes in anger. “I wouldn’t be caught dead being your guest.”
She sidestepped him, heading for the ticketing counter. John ran behind her, trying to keep up. She could hear Phillip laughing behind her.
“I would like two one-way tickets to New York, please. Kennedy airport,” she told the girl, slapping her credit card down on the counter.
“I’m sorry, but the soonest flight into New York is Tuesday.”
“Tuesday! But that’s three days from now. What am I supposed to do for three days?”
The poor girl looked frightened. “I’m sorry, miss, but that is the soonest. I could put you on standby,” she added, hopeful.
Jessica sighed, looking down at the ticket she currently held in her hand for her return flight. It was three weeks from now. The young woman was waiting anxiously for her reply. She glanced at Phillip, then at John, and finally back at the ticketing agent. “I’ll take the flight leaving in three days.”
“Jessica, are you sure? Clair is going to be pissed off.”
“I don’t care. She had no right to do what she has done. You can stay if you want, but I’m going back.”
“Will that be one ticket or two?” The agent asked, clearly annoyed now.
Jessica looked at John, who was glancing nervously between Jessica and Phillip Stewart. He was trying to figure out what her next plan was. He couldn’t understand her violent reaction to the man. He seemed nice enough. After all, he was the one paying for this trip. He always wanted to visit Australia. He sighed.
“Make it two,” he said. “I hope we don’t regret it.”
“Come on. Let’s get a taxi and find a hotel to stay in.” She started in the opposite direction of where Phillip stood, confidently waiting.
“Just a minute, Jessica,” he called after her. “Where are you headed now?”
“To find a hotel, if it’s any of your business,” she called over her shoulder, never stopping to wait for him. She heard him laughing again and halted, turning to look back at him.
“What the hell are you laughing at now? I suppose you are going to tell me I can’t get a hotel room. Did you not say this was the end of the tourist season? Well, you were right about the airline tickets. However, since everyone is leaving, that means the hotels are empty, right?”
He laughed again and came to stand before her. “I did say it was the end of the tourist season. However, do you see all those people coming off these planes?” She reluctantly turned to look and gasped. He chuckled. “I happen to know there are ten different conventions taking place this week alone. Well, don’t you think they all have reservations? Oh, you probably could find a hotel that has a vacancy.” He glanced at John. “Maybe even two, but you would drive all over the city before you did. Oh, and I’m sure it would be the cream-of-the-crop. So please, don’t be so proud. Let me be your escort. I promise I’ll behave.” He held out his arm, waiting for her to slip hers through it.
Finally, John exploded. “Come on, Jess. What’s wrong with you? I have never seen you act like this,” he said, exasperated. “Mr. Stewart has graciously offered us his hospitality. I’m tired, and I know you are, too. I certainly don’t feel like roaming the city in search of a place to sleep. Whatever pretenses got us here, we are here now. Let’s just make the most of it.”
She looked sympathetically at him and winced. “Okay, John, but for you, not for him,” she spat toward Phillip as she sidestepped his extended arm. He shrugged his shoulders and withdrew it.
“Very well, then,” he said. “Thank you, John. I’m happy to see that one of you is thinking sensibly. Shall we go then?”
He led the way to the car, and despite her hostility, Jessica was pleased to see that a limousine awaited them.
“Where are we headed?” she asked after they were on the highway.
“To my home, of course.” He snickered at her look of puzzlement.
“Oh, didn’t you know? I have a family home here. In fact, I grew up here. My mother was Australian.”
Dawning spread across her face. “So that’s why Brandon couldn’t find much of a past for you. You were born in another country.” She leered at him as he laughed boisterously. John stared at the two of them in confusion. Suddenly, he didn’t like the burning in the pit of his stomach. He was starting to regret his assertive tantrum.
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