Michael & Juliana
He knew with one glance that she would change his life….
A prosecutor about to try the trial of his career and a hard-luck hairstylist meet at Baltimore-Washington International Airport on a Friday night, on their way to visit significant others in Florida. Michael and Juliana have a lot riding on this weekend as they try to repair relationships strained by distance. When they discover they’re on the same flight home, they agree to meet up again to compare notes about how their weekends unfolded.
…. but he couldn’t have know that everything is about to change…
SIGNED PRINT EDITION
Love at First Flight
By Marie Force
The boss had picked a hell of a time to get chatty.
A bead of sweat rolled down Michael’s back. As Baltimore City State’s Attorney Tom Houlihan pelted him with a rapid-fire series of pre-trial questions over the phone, the departure time for Michael’s flight to Florida crept closer. He needed an exit strategy, and he needed it now.
Travelers swarmed through the gate area while Michael struggled to stay focused on the call despite the chaos around him. Tugging on his burgundy silk tie, he released the top button of his shirt and watched a line form to board the flight.
“And Rachelle?” Tom asked.
“I saw her last night,” Michael said. “She’s antsy, but hanging in there.” He flipped through some other notes on his laptop, hoping to anticipate Tom’s next question.
“Well, she’s a teenager stuck in protective custody. You’ve got daughters, so you can probably imagine.”
An exotic scent filled Michael’s senses, drawing his attention away from the call. He glanced at the seat next to him where a young woman with silky dark hair and an olive-toned complexion watched with dismay as a gate attendant slipped a “Delayed” sign over the flight number.
“Michael?” Tom said.
He tore his gaze off the gorgeous woman. “I’m sorry. What did you say?”
“I asked if there was anything else you needed from me.”
“We should be set until jury selection. I’ll want your input then. George prepped the last of the witnesses today. We’ve covered all the bases, so try not to worry.”
“Yeah, right,” Tom said with a wry chuckle.
“I’ll check in first thing on Monday.”
“Enjoy the party. Hopefully, it’s the only time you’ll be engaged.”
Michael laughed, relieved that Tom seemed satisfied—for now. “That’s the goal. I appreciate the time off. Have a good weekend.” He ended the call and caught the tail end of the gate attendant’s announcement. “What did she say?” he asked the woman next to him.
She glanced over with a distressed expression on her stunning face. “Ninety-minute delay.”
The jolt of desire surprised Michael. He was on his way to visit his fiancée and to attend their engagement party, so what was with the unexpected reaction to a pretty stranger? Pretty wasn’t the right word. Strikingly beautiful was more like it. Since they now had ninety minutes to kill, he decided to indulge the curiosity. “Where’re you heading in Jax?”
“Jacksonville Beach.” He noticed her eyes were fixed on the gate attendant who slid the updated departure time into a slot on the board. “My boyfriend’s working there for a year. How about you?” She glanced over at him with soft brown eyes that drew him right in.
He couldn’t remember the last time anything other than the upcoming trial had captured his attention so completely. “Amelia Island. My fiancée lives there with her parents.”
“So you’re doing the long-distance thing, too, huh?”
“Yeah, and it sucks. How long have you been doing it?”
“Almost seven months,” she said with a sigh.
“Six months down and eight to go for us. We’re getting married in April.”
“Well, at least we both know it won’t last forever. I don’t know how people do it indefinitely. That would make me even crazier than I am now.”
“What do you do?” she asked.
“I’m a prosecutor for the Baltimore City state’s attorney.”
Her eyes widened. “Wow, that’s so cool.”
“More like overwhelming—especially lately. What about you?”
“Nothing quite so exciting. I’m a hair stylist.”
“That sounds like more fun than putting people in jail.”
Her smile engaged her entire face, and his heart skipped an erratic beat.
“It is until someone hates their haircut, but fortunately that doesn’t happen to me very often.”
“What do you do when it does?”
“If they’re truly upset, we offer them a freebie next time, but usually they come back telling us they got all kinds of compliments on their new look.”
Hoping to keep her talking, he ran his hand through his mop of wavy brown hair. “I could use your services right about now.”
“You should stop by the salon sometime.”
“Where do you work?”
“Panache in the Inner Harbor.”
“I wish I had time for a haircut. I’m going to trial in just over a week.”
“Can you tell me about it?” She turned in her chair and pulled her legs up under her.
“It’s the Benedetti brothers,” he confided in a low tone, thrilled to have her full attention.
She gasped. “Oh my God!”
Gang members Marco and Steven Benedetti were accused of gunning down three teenaged boys in the city.
“My co-worker’s cousin was one of the kids they killed. Timmy Sargant.”
“We’re going to get them.”
“I hope so,” she said softly. “I really do.”
“Attention in the gate area. Announcing the arrival of Flight 980 from Providence with continuing service to Jacksonville. For those of you waiting for the Jacksonville flight, we’ll begin boarding as soon as the thunderstorms clear out of the Jacksonville area.”
“I wish I was going to Providence,” he said.
“I’m from there. My family lives in Newport.”
“How’d you end up down here?”
“I went to Georgetown Law and met my fiancée, so I ended up staying here. Then her parents moved to Florida, and here we are living apart. How’d you meet your boyfriend?”
“We went to high school together. We’ve been together ten years, since junior year.”
“So then you’re… twenty-seven? You look older than that.”
“You’re not supposed to say that to a woman,” she said, laughing at his sudden embarrassment.
“What I meant is that you look much too sophisticated dressed all in black to be only twenty-seven. Is that better?”
“Nice save,” she said with a grin. “We wear black in the salon—it’s the uniform.
“I’m Michael Maguire, by the way, and I’m thirty-two.”
Smiling, she reached out to shake his hand, and an odd current traveled through him at the feel of her soft hand in his. He had to remind himself that he was supposed to let go.
“Juliana Gregorio. Nice to meet you, Michael Maguire, thirty-two.”
“So how come you aren’t married to that boyfriend of ten years yet?” he asked with a teasing grin, not sure why the answer suddenly mattered so much to him.
“We just haven’t gotten around to it, I guess. I’ve been asking myself that question more often in the months since Jeremy’s been gone.”
“We’ll see.” She nibbled on her thumbnail. “For some reason, I feel like there’s a lot riding on this weekend.”
“Why do you suppose that is?”
“I don’t know. Everything was going along pretty well for months, but he’s been kind of remote on the phone the last few weeks. I can’t figure out what’s up.”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine when you see him. Paige’s parents are having an engagement party for us this weekend, which is the number one reason why I’d rather be heading north instead of south.”
“You’re not excited about the party?”
“I’m dreading it. It’s so stupid when you consider all the same people will be at the wedding less than a year from now.”
“It’s a waste of time and money—two things her parents have way too much of.”
Juliana smiled, and Michael found himself riveted by her every expression. Her face flushed under the heat of his scrutiny, and she looked away. He wondered if she thought he was one of those weird strangers women were taught to fend off in self-defense classes. She’d probably run for her life if he acted on the urge to lean in closer for a better whiff of the earthy, spicy scent that was driving him mad.
Reminding himself he was a grown man and not a hormonal teenager, he made an effort to keep the staring—and the sniffing—to a minimum and the conversation light. By the time the gate attendant announced their flight, he felt like he had known Juliana for years rather than an hour. Since the plane wasn’t full, they chose seats together.
Her cell phone rang just as she took it out to turn it off. “Hi, Dona. I can’t talk. I’m on the plane, and I have to shut my phone off soon.”
While pretending not to hang on her every word, Michael watched her stiffen with tension.
“You promised me! You said you’d handle it!” Another pause. “I’ll call Vincent.” She ended the call and dialed another number. “Vin, you gotta help me out. Can you take dinner over and check on Ma tonight? Dona totally bailed on me.” Pause. “Vincent, I’m on an airplane. You’ve got to do it.” She lowered her voice. “Please.”
Something about that softly uttered word tugged at Michael’s already over-involved heart, making him wish he could fix all her problems. What the hell is that all about?
“Thanks, Vin. I really appreciate it. I’ll talk to you Sunday.” She shut the phone off, returned it to her purse, and stared out the airplane window.
For a long moment, Michael debated whether he should say anything. “Are you all right?” he finally asked.
“It’s just my family. They drive me nuts. My mother, she needs… She has problems.”
“That’s tough. I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry I have to deal with it every day of my life.”
“Do you have brothers and sisters?”
“Two of each, but they’re much older than me and mostly useless. How about you?”
“I’m the baby, too. I have three older sisters.”
“I’ll bet they doted on you,” Juliana said, seeming relieved by the shift in conversation away from her troubles.
He grinned. “Oh, yeah, nonstop torture. They were forever dressing me up as their living doll. Don’t tell anyone that. It’ll kill my image.” Noticing how she clutched the armrest as the plane hurtled down the runway and lifted into the sky, he wanted to offer her a hand to hold but didn’t.
“Are you close to your sisters?” she asked once they were airborne and she’d released the death grip on the armrest.
“Yeah, all of them. They’re married with scads of kids who’re the most adorable kids in the world, of course.”
She smiled. “Do you see them very often?”
“I get up there every now and then, but it’s harder since Paige moved to Florida. Whenever I have a free weekend, I end up down there.”
“Is your family coming to the party this weekend?”
“They couldn’t get away for it, but that’s fine with me. My folks and hers don’t have much in common.”
“You must be excited about the wedding at least.”
He thought about that for a minute. “I’d be more excited if it hadn’t turned into such a circus. I’ve already heard enough about it to last me forever, and I’ve got eight months to go.”
She laughed. “Big to-do, huh?”
“The biggest of to-dos, which is not at all what I wanted. But she’s their only child, so I gave in.”
“It must’ve been hard for you to get away so close to the trial.”
“We’ve been working weekends for months now, so my boss wasn’t thrilled, believe me. But he’s a good friend of the Admiral’s. That’s Paige’s dad.”
Juliana raised an eyebrow. “You call him ‘the Admiral’?”
“Everyone calls him ‘the Admiral.’ He retired as commandant of the Naval Academy last year.”
The stewardess came to take their drink order.
“Can I buy you a drink?” he asked.
“Why not?” She ordered a gin and tonic, and he asked for a beer.
He paid for the drinks and saluted her with his can. “Cheers. Here’s to a good weekend.”
“I’ll drink to that.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, as we make our final approach into Jacksonville, we thank you again for choosing Southwest Airlines. Enjoy the weekend.”
Juliana looked up, surprised by how fast two hours had passed as she chatted with Michael. The thought of seeing Jeremy in a few minutes filled her with nervous energy and excitement.
“Are you ready?” Michael asked.
He had the bluest eyes she’d ever seen and a sexy smile that made her tingle all over when he directed it at her. “As ready as I’ll ever be.”
“I’m sure you’ll have a great time. Keep in mind that all guys suck on the phone. Paige is forever complaining that I never have anything to say.”
Juliana appreciated his attempt to bolster her confidence.
“How about you? Ready to put on your best party face?”
He laughed. “I don’t have much of a party face.”
“You’ve got five minutes to get one.”
“When do you go back?” he asked.
“Seven on Sunday evening.”
“We can compare notes,” she said, oddly relieved to know she would see him again.
“I’ll look forward to it.”
They gathered their bags and walked up the Jetway and through the terminal together. When she spotted Jeremy waiting for her, she looked over to say good-bye to Michael, who had made eye contact with his fiancée, a waiflike blonde with porcelain features and big blue eyes. She looked like she would break if hugged too hard and wasn’t at all what Juliana had pictured for him.
“I’ll see you Sunday,” she said to Michael.
“Have a good one,” he said, walking toward Paige as she went to Jeremy.
“Who’s that guy?” Jeremy asked when she reached up to hug him. He was eight inches taller than her and still built like the football player he had been in high school.
“Just someone I sat next to on the plane. How are you?” She looked him over for clues to what was troubling him lately, but he looked the same as he always did. He kept his curly blond hair cut short now that he was older, but when she met him it had been six inches high and unruly—a lot like he had been then.
“Fine,” he said, leaning down to kiss her.
She turned away from the scent of stale beer on his breath. “Have you been drinking, Jer?”
“Just a few beers with the guys after work,” he said with a shrug. “Your flight was late, so I had time to kill.”
Judging by the glassy look in his eyes, Juliana could tell that he’d had more than a few and was disappointed he had done that on the night she was coming to visit.
Holding hands, they walked by Michael as he hugged Paige.
Michael glanced up at Juliana, and the dismayed expression on his face made her sad for him.
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Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
~ Calvin Coolidge
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