UnConventional – Excerpt

“I always told myself I wouldn’t be one of those people who’s last to board and holds everyone up. I’m sorry,” I say, forcing my eyes to meet his. Reaching for my St. Anthony medal out of reflex, I flush when I catch myself and drop my hands.

“Let me guess,” he says. His eyes sparkle, his skin wrinkling just a tiny bit in each corner. “You went through terminal C.”

“That obvious, huh?” I say, leaning back in my seat.

He points a finger at me, gesturing with it. “There’s actually this little hidden security checkpoint for terminal E nearly no one knows about. It’s rarely crowded, especially since it’s only open in the mornings.”

“You tell me this now,” I say with a relaxed smile, my head turned toward him.

With an effortless shrug, he returns the grin, and I notice his strong chin, his smoothly shaved, olive-tinged skin that suggests it’ll turn the perfect shade of brown if he spends enough time in the sun. He extends his hand. “Santiago Durán.”

It takes a moment for my muscles to register that my hand should slip into his, and even after it does, grasping it and completing the handshake is a struggle. My heart is fluttering—yes, fluttering; who thought hearts actually did that? My throat suddenly dry.

“Santiago… Isn’t that a city?”

He laughs. A good-natured, genuine laugh, almost as intoxicating as the rest of him. Deep but not too deep. “My parents are Cuban, from Oriente, so I guess they were homesick.” At my confused look, he adds, “I’m lucky they named me Santiago instead of Guantánamo; Diego’s a much better nickname than Gitmo. Especially nowadays.” He grins, his eyes twinkling.

Still not taking my hand from his, I say, “Nadine Monroe. But please, call me Di. I can’t stand Nadine.” Neither could my mother. I was named after some great-aunt I never met. It didn’t take long for her to bestow “Di” as a nickname, inspired by her favorite heroine in a novel she’d read dozens of times. I’m pretty sure the “Di” in the book was short for “Diane” (and pronounced “die,”), but because of the sound of “Nadine,” she called me “Dee.”

He laughs again, and I think I could spend a lifetime listening to that sound. “So both our parents chose ridiculous names for their children.”

I’m finally able to recover my hand, although now I know where the hyperbolic expression “I’ll never wash it again” comes from. “I don’t think Santiago’s ridiculous. I like it.”

He smiles and leans his head back, looking directly at me, as if I’m the only woman on the planet. “Then you can call me Santiago. You can call me whatever you like.”

I flush. The flight attendant is going over the safety procedure, and though I know it’s rude to ignore her, I can’t take my eyes off Santiago’s, which are this rich milk chocolate speckled with gold, amber, and copper, a swirl of shades as if his irises were created from a blend of colored pencils. I keep expecting to find some new facet to them.

It occurs to me that I’m looking at him far too closely considering I’m married. Is it cheating just to admire and flirt with a hot guy I’ll probably never see again?

He’s grinning, studying my eyes, occasionally glancing up at the flight attendant to offer her his smile too. I’m not sure what he expects to see in my irises; they’re greenish gray, the color of dirty money, complete with dark flecks of dirt.

“So why you heading to New Orleans? If it’s Mardi Gras, I’m afraid you’re about five months too late.” I keep my voice low, trying not to be too rude to the flight attendant.

He chuckles. “A conference. You’ve probably never heard of it. ECAC. Editors and Copyeditors Association Conference. It’s no coincidence that if you pronounce the acronym, it sounds like a noise you’d make after tasting something unpleasant.”

“Oh my God,” I say, slapping my hand over my mouth, the red in my cheeks intensifying. I cast a glance at the flight attendant, who’s finished her presentation and is glaring at me. “Me too,” I add in explanation, relieved the flight attendant has disappeared to check the overhead bins and tray tables in preparation for takeoff. “Where do you work?”

After his hot Bush Intercontinental Airport tip, I’m pretty confident (and secretly hopeful) this isn’t a connecting flight for him, that he lives somewhere in the vast expanse that is the Houston metro area. Even if he’s a fantasy, the idea of coming home and knowing Santiago “El Hunko” is out there will at least give me a little extra fantasy fuel.

“You know Houston magazine? I write some of the copy, but mostly I’m the one making sure all the i’s are dotted and the t’s crossed.”

I lean back, stretching my legs and deciding to pull them up into the seat since my feet don’t quite touch the ground. I’ve always wished I was tall and large-chested, but airplanes do make me grateful for my five-foot-one, 100-pound frame.

“What about you?”

Before I can answer, the flight attendant interrupts. Completely ignoring me, she leans in toward Santiago. “We should be taking off soon. You okay? Need anything?”

He smiles at her, shakes his head almost imperceptibly. “I’m perfect, thank you.”

Yes you are, I think, then cover my face with my hands, hoping to hide the reflexive pinking of my cheeks.

It doesn’t matter, because I can’t help noticing the way she smiles at him. They’re totally flirting with each other. I feel myself sink a little. That warm feeling of being singled out is fading. Santiago probably flirts with everyone. I don’t blame him. He’s totally delicious and far, far off menu for me, even if I weren’t married.

“I stashed them in the front closet. I’ll get them out for you once we’ve landed and everyone’s disembarked,” she says.

“Thank you,” he says. He’s still smiling, but I notice him rub the heel of one hand over his thigh, an unconscious, nervous gesture.

What is she talking about? Some kind of luggage? I don’t have much time to ponder the issue because the pilot comes on the speaker. As usual, his voice is nearly unintelligible, but I definitely pick up something about a delay in our takeoff schedule.

The flight attendant disappears.

“Well, looks like we’ll have plenty of time to get to know each other,” Santiago says. “I think you were going to tell me about your job?”

“Oh. Yes. I work for an editing consulting company. Basically, it’s like organized freelance.” I chuckle nervously. “Anytime anyone in the area needs editing or proofreading or copywriting and they don’t have an in-house team, they call us.”

“Sounds exciting,” he says, and I’m surprised he’s not feigning his interest. Or being sarcastic.

I tap my hand on my ankle. “Not really. My boss is a workaholic, and that sort of trickles down. So I see long hours and bring work home a lot more than I’d like,” I add with a grunt.

Something changes in his face; it’s fleeting—just a fraction of a second before he replaces it with his smile and warm look—but I still catch it. “I know exactly what you mean.”

“Two lowly editors, sitting together in first class,” I say, still gripping my ankle, giving me something to cling to. “I keep asking myself what I’m doing,” I say, my cheeks heating; I hadn’t intended to say that out loud.

He laughs. It’s not his full laugh, but it’s rich and deep and lovely anyway. He winks at me subtly. “I know what I’m doing.”

I arch an eyebrow, my heart thumping.

His eyes twinkle, and he leans toward me when he answers. “Sitting next to the most attractive woman on Flight 1037.”

* * * *

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