Everything felt swollen—her eyelids, her cheeks, her lips. Especially her lips that had been kissed furiously and desperately the night before. A reminder of her transgressions in the form of a single copper strand of hair rested lightly but resolutely on her sleeve. Alex picked it off and flicked it to the floor.
Despite the warm shame from the memory of the previous night, her skin prickled with an interminable cold. Frost had spread across the airplane window, reaching inside with its icy fingers and permeating her skin. Alex huddled deeper into the leather-backed seat and scrutinized the details in the snow-covered landscape that had become more visible over the last hour. They would be landing shortly.
She stared down at her nails, short and bitten almost to the quick over the last few months and hid them inside the sleeves of her aubergine wool coat. As a physician, long nails had never suited her. She had to position her hands on tiny bodies and place catheters into blood vessels no bigger than a stick of spaghetti. Her hands were constantly dry from the onslaught of disinfecting foam and her fingers frigid as if she had just pulled them from a deep freeze. In her haste to leave, she hoped she had remembered to pack gloves.
The plane dropped another hundred feet of altitude, revealing a distinct patch of grass pushing its way through the frost and a herd of sheep trotting merrily toward a cluster of felt-lined dwellings. A lazy river wound its way through a vast meadow until the terrain abruptly morphed into a mountain range with peaks still dusted with snow. The climate was unbearably cold in the mountains where the altitude rose and the air thinned. Alex shivered, grateful that they would be spending most of their time in the city.
After living in Botswana most of last year, she had been spoiled by the semi-arid climate and the spectacular sun that baked the land and her skin during the day. Even the hospital where she worked had open-air corridors and a central courtyard so that transitioning between wards allowed a moment of fresh air. Alex briefly wondered how the pediatric ward was faring without her. If she hadn’t promised Ian that she would do this, she would be in Gaborone right now, probably up to her elbows in the onset of fall weather and the childhood respiratory infections that usually came with it.
Alex glanced around the plane at the rows of empty seats, pausing on the few occupants. Lydia, her red hair wound tightly in a bun, was the Scottish powerhouse behind the inner workings of the Devall Foundation. She clicked away on her laptop, oblivious to her surroundings. Rachel and Rahul, work colleagues who had evolved into a couple, were huddled tightly together, her head lolled over on his shoulder. He leaned over and kissed her hair gently. Ian’s father, George Devall, swiveled in his rear-facing seat and stretched his giraffe-like legs into the aisle. The bulk of the Devall Foundation—the most philanthropic entity on the planet. People who cared about changing lives and making a difference. They had certainly changed hers.
When Alex had met Ian Devall on the outdoor patio of Ex-Pats almost two years ago, he had charmed her and repelled her at the same time. In his black leather jacket, black jeans, and aviator sunglasses, he was the epitome of sex appeal and charm...and he knew it better than anyone else. She expected to be attracted to him. What she didn’t expect was to fall madly in love with him. He had slowly but effectively deconstructed her barriers until she had had no choice but to leap into the flames of a consuming, life-altering love affair.
A tall, fine-boned flight attendant with tightly coiffed ebony hair strode through the cabin with a red-lipped smile, revealing a set of perfectly polished teeth.
“May I offer you a beverage before we land, Dr. Wilde?”
Although tempting, her stomach lining had been excoriated by champagne the night before, and it had not yet regenerated.
“No, thank you,” she answered.
The woman eyed her critically and handed her a bottle of water anyway.
After taking a quick sip, she placed the water in the cupholder of her highly accessorized plane seat. Alex had only been on a private plane once before. Ian had scooped her out of Haiti after an unfortunate incident involving an aftershock and a collapsing school. A school that she happened to be inside. Alex had flown to Port au Prince on a rescue mission to provide medical care for kids after a devastating earthquake. Instead, she had become the one needing emergency medical treatment. Fortunately, the only reminder of the accident was a single jagged scar on her scalp, usually covered by waves of chocolate brown hair.
Unlike Alex’s small-town upbringing, Ian had grown up in the privileged universe reserved for heirs to billion-dollar mining fortunes. A few years ago, he had been named chairman of the Devall Foundation, which allowed him to spend his days flitting across the globe working to build partnerships with animal preserves, educational organizations, and hospitals, including the hospital where she worked in Gaborone. She had always marveled at the freedom Ian possessed being able to command sky travel according to his will.
When Alex had arrived in London yesterday, she had been ushered through Heathrow airport and driven in a black sedan to a private hanger. Gentlemen in white coats had stowed her luggage into the deep underbelly of the Learjet. They directed her up a set of rollaway stairs where individual alcoves with white leather armchairs awaited each passenger. The service provided by the stylish flight attendants had been impeccable, complete with a wide array of beverage options and light meals offered every few hours. Alex had pretended to sleep through most of the concierge service, preferring dreamless solitude to mindless snacking.
Now, out of the corner of one eye, she saw a pair of gray trousers striding down the aisle, and, shortly, George Devall settled into the chair opposite her. His face appeared thinner than the last time she had seen him but had maintained its distinction. His snow-white hair was perfectly combed and thick despite his age. His chocolate brown eyes, set deep into his face, were always a combination of kindness and perception.
Ian had inherited none of his characteristics from his father apart from his height. From the few pictures Alex had seen of Ian as a child, he resembled his mother. He had her jet-black hair and eyes the color of an ocean’s sky.
“How was the flight, Alexandra?” George said in a soft voice that always seemed to surprise her given his gargantuan stature.
She straightened in her seat and tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “It was fine, thank you.” Her voice sounded thick and strained like she had swallowed the gravel coating her mom’s driveway.
He nodded, accepting her answer into the depths of his eyes but not believing it. Clearing his throat, he reached into his jacket pocket and removed a small leather portfolio, splaying it open in front of her.
“This is our schedule for the next few days. I trust that Lydia sent you a copy?”
Alex nodded. “She did.”
“Excellent.” He pointed to a highlighted event on his printed itinerary. “I was hoping that you might be able to say a few words at the dedication tomorrow.”
Alex felt her throat constrict as the words fought to scrabble past her vocal cords and leave her swollen lips. “Of course.”
She expected the tears to come then, unbidden and shameless. They didn’t.
“Wonderful. Did you have a nice time at the charity event?” He offered her a weak but gracious smile.
Alex swallowed past her sandpaper throat, clutching the water bottle in her hand.
“I...it was lovely.”
Ian’s signature phrase popped into her head—I drink, I dance, I donate. She had outdone herself with the first one last night. The fresh memory of hands gripping her hair erupted into her pounding head. She had been swallowed into a moment, the first moment in forever that had not been excruciatingly painful and indulged in a slice of physical pleasure for the purpose of analgesia. But instead of making her forget, it had made her remember.
George kept his eyes trained on her face, seeming to wait for words that she didn’t plan to say.
When Alex had met Ian, he had been exiting hedonistic highway after a decade of indulgence in order to dull the pain of losing his younger brother and then being abandoned by his mom. After living life from one social event and exotic international location to the next, he had come to rest on the precipice of change, as was Alex herself.
Right before meeting Alex, Ian had been named chairman of the Devall Foundation and was making a concerted effort to focus his energies on more suitable endeavors. In her pre-Ian era, Alex’s entire life revolved around her career as an ICU doctor and her global health work. Ian had exposed a secret part of her that had always desired something more. Someone more. An epic love.
The stylish flight attendant paused in the aisle and looked adoringly at George Devall, tucking her silk scarf into the white starched collar of her blouse. “May I offer you a beverage before landing, sir?”
He glanced up at her, crossing his legs and settling back into the armchair. “I believe I will, Laura. Bourbon, please. You know how I like it.”
With a crisp nod, she disappeared into the galley and returned barely a minute later with a crystal highball glass, half-filled with amber liquid.
“Here you are, Mr. Devall. Enjoy the remainder of your flight.”
Her voice was clean and crisp, like the white sheets whipping in the wind on Janie Wilde’s clothesline when Alex was a child.
Alex stared at his glass, mesmerized by the undulating liquid inside as George swirled the contents a few times before taking a swallow. He exhaled heavily into the airplane cabin so that the vapors from the bourbon reached Alex’s nostrils. She drew a breath and then another, drinking in the aerosolized particles like they were oxygen. They settled into her, flirting with her olfactory cells, and bypassing the carefully guarded border of her subconscious. She didn’t have the will or desire to resist their provocative charm.
One after the other, memories rushed by as if on a cinema reel. A first kiss in a tent in the Kalahari. An exquisite hotel room in Paris. A rainy fourth of July pressed against her apartment window in Philadelphia. A solemn airplane ride to Texas when every breath was painful. A courtyard in Provence, and then finally pausing at an expatriate bar on the outskirts of Gaborone last July.
With a shaky breath, she inhaled deeply, the smell of bourbon and leather intoxicating her with the memory of Ian leaning in to kiss her.