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.