It had been ages since Delaney Richards had given a man a second thought, let alone a second look. But the pilot with the hints of gray at the temples of his chestnut-colored hair and smiling eyes had caught her unwitting attention. She watched him greet the oncoming passengers before his gaze found hers and lingered. Then, fever rushing to her cheeks, she pretended to contemplate the baggage handlers loading an adjacent plane. She felt his measured stare for a moment more before he turned away.
“Can I bring you a drink before takeoff?”
Delaney shifted her attention in the direction of the hospitable voice. “Water, please,” she told the woman standing over her left shoulder. “Maybe a glass of red wine after takeoff.”
The flight attendant shook her head in acknowledgement. “The aisle seat in your row isn’t booked. Make yourself comfortable.”
Delaney watched her return to the front of the plane and whisper something to the pilot. Nodding in affirmation, he began retreating into the cockpit, but stopped short. His amber eyes met Delaney’s and held briefly before he closed the door.
Shaking off the revery, Delaney opened her bag and retrieved her laptop. Being appointed interim vice-president had been a well-deserved yet unexpected promotion. And as luck would have it, she’d been thrown out of the frying pan and into the fire. Rebranding an investment firm with a reputation for tolerating sexual harassment in today’s unsparing business climate had been a challenge to say the least. It had consumed her life for the last few months. Her presentation in San Francisco next week could ensure the position became permanent. And she planned to nail it.
She had no sooner brought up the opening slide of her PowerPoint presentation when the flight crew asked for everyone’s attention to review the safety procedures. Like most of the passengers, Delaney immediately tuned them out. Until a resounding voice filled the cabin, abruptly pulling her out of work mode.
“Welcome to United Airlines Flight 1126 to San Francisco. This is your captain. We anticipate a smooth four-hour-and-change flight to SFO this evening. I’ll update you along the way about our progress as well as point out any landmarks of note below. Thanks for flying with us. Enjoy the flight. We’ve got the best crew in the business with us tonight.”
The next thing she knew, the flight attendant was back at her elbow again. “Not only do you have your row to yourself, but we’ve got the good California wine tonight.” She handed Delaney a glass and a cocktail napkin. “This must be your lucky day.”
Delaney returned the smile as the other woman took her leave. Maybe it was. Maybe her luck was finally starting to change.
Even after twenty-plus years behind the stick Captain Mike Savoy never took a smooth landing for granted. Technical check behind him, he exchanged pleasantries with the flight crew before going out into the cabin to thank the passengers for their business.
But tonight his motivation was admittedly twofold. He wanted to see the woman in first-class again. She’d been asleep when he'd left the cockpit mid-flight, and he’d surprised himself by pausing to study her. He hadn’t seen her on the countless Chicago to San Francisco flights he’d commanded in the last few years.
“Joining us for dinner, Mike?”
He reluctantly shifted his gaze from the brunette to the blonde staring at him hopefully. Shaking his head, he gave her a closemouthed smile. “Not tonight. I’ve got some paperwork to catch-up on before I’m out of here.”
“I’ll wait for you, have a drink until you’re done.”
Mike sensed the innuendo in the voice of the woman almost young enough to be his daughter. He had a strict no mixing business with pleasure policy. And Caitlin would definitely be pleasure. “You guys go on,” he told her. “Maybe next time.”
“All right.” He felt Caitlin’s eyes trail his to the only remaining passenger in the first-class cabin. “You have my cell in case you change your mind.” She stepped aside, allowing the cleaning crew to enter before lifting the handle of her wheeled bag. “Good night.”
“Good night,” Mike threw over his shoulder. The woman had flawless olive skin and her lips shimmered with the same shade of pink gloss that glazed her fingernails. Holding the phone in the crook of her shoulder, she was writing furiously on an envelope. He looked on as she disconnected, then slipped the phone into her enormous purse and stood. Mike nearly tripped over his feet trying to reach her before she slid her carry-on out of the overhead compartment.
“Let me get that.” Reaching over her head, he grabbed the bag. It was heavier than he expected. “Long trip?”
“Just a week or so,” she answered with a bright smile. “I’ve been through the lost luggage nightmare twice. I’ve learned to carry all the essentials with me.”
She was so naturally, effortlessly beautiful, Mike couldn’t imagine she needed much. “I hope our airline didn’t lose your luggage,” he remarked.
“No.” Her silky hair rested just below her shoulders and her eyes paralleled its dark hue. “Neither time,” she hastened to inform him.
“Good to hear.”
Their gaze held for a moment more. Then she broke it by saying, “Thank you.” She started to reach for the bag.
“This is awfully heavy. I’ll carry it out for you.”
“That’s not necessary. I can get it.”
“I insist.” Mike extended his arm, gesturing for her to walk ahead of him.
She obliged, walking toward the exit on excruciatingly long legs. She stopped at the breezeway and started to say something, but the roar of the vacuums foiled it. She followed his silent direction and when they reached the gate said, “Thanks.”
“My pleasure.” Mike found himself oddly compelled to make conversation. “Is San Francisco your final destination?” He was torn between not wanting to let her go and not wanting her to miss a connection.
“Yes, I’m in town for a wedding. I also have some business meetings planned for next week. I don’t get out to the West Coast very often anymore.”
“I went to school out here.” She sent an expectant glance down to the bag Mike was still holding. “Thank you again, Captain.”
He wanted to ask her where, but her tone had become businesslike and he sensed she was ready to be on her way. “Of course. And it’s Mike. Mike Savoy.” He set the bag at her feet. She smelled as good as she looked.
“Delaney Richards.” She extended her hand. “It’s nice to meet you, Mike.”
“Likewise.” Her hand felt as silky smooth as her hair looked. He found himself wanting run his hands through it just to make sure. “Where are you staying?”
The random question seemed to surprise her as much as it had him. “The Fairmont,” she informed him.
“Along with being beautiful, you have excellent taste. You can’t go wrong there.”
“So I’ve heard.” She blushed a little. “Well, I should get to baggage claim before my suitcase goes to lost and found.”
Mike laughed without opening his mouth. “You are a seasoned traveler, Ms. Richards.”
“Delaney. And yes, I am. The East Coast and Europe for the most part.”
“I’ve traveled the world myself. But there’s no place quite like San Francisco.” He handed her the bag. “Enjoy your stay.”
He watched her disappear into the sea of people. He’d never taken such interest in a passenger before. Not that she seemed to mind. She was traveling alone and not wearing an engagement or wedding ring. Maybe he would see her again on her outbound flight. Or better yet in the city. After all, the Fairmont was only a few blocks from his apartment on Nob Hill.
It was after midnight Chicago time when Delaney arrived in her room. But thanks to her cross-country nap, she wouldn’t be going to sleep anytime soon. Gazing at the lights meandering up and down Telegraph Hill, she was reminded of how much she loved San Francisco. The clanking of cable cars and bellowing of foghorns brought her back to the days before impossible deadlines, endless meetings and most of all, a broken heart. Of all the things she’d imagined going wrong on her wedding day, finding herself alone at the altar hadn’t made the list.
And she hadn’t been anywhere near a wedding since.
There’d been plenty of invitations in the last two years, of course. All of which she’d found a convenient reason to decline. But this one was different. This was Lindsay.
They’d gone from randomly assigned roommates to fast friends in college. Lindsay and Delaney instantly bonded over a myriad of commonalities. Most notably not having a father in their lives, albeit for completely different reasons. Lindsay had lost her parents as a child; Delaney had never known her father. Which made it all the more peculiar that he’d been coming to mind so much lately. She was pushing down the past again when Lindsay’s ringtone interrupted her thoughts.
“Welcome back to California.” The joy in her friend’s voice was palpable.
“Thanks. It’s good to be back. How’s the bride?”
“Better now that the winds have calmed. The smoke from the brush fires in the foothills made its way up here. Keep your fingers crossed that Saturday will be clear.”
“Either way everything will be beautiful,” Delaney reassured her.
There was dead air for a long moment, then Lindsay said, “It means so much to me that you came, Laney.”
Delaney felt her eyes well with tears. But at least her stomach didn’t clench anymore. Or threaten to empty. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” she told her and meant it.
“Can you drive up first thing? That way we can catch-up before everything gets crazy tomorrow night.”
“Sure.” Delaney assessed her reflection in the full-length mirror with a self-deprecating grimace. “I could use a little Tahoe sun.”
“That can be arranged. I was afraid you’d be delayed. Fog shut down SFO for a few hours. You were lucky to have gotten in on time.”
She felt a a smile sneak in and reverse the crescent moon-like frown on her mouth. “Yeah, today must be my lucky day.”
The morning sunlight streaming through Mike’s bedroom window woke him despite the pillow covering his head. He’d been in the air more than not these last few weeks and had been looking forward to some sleep. So much for that. He grabbed a sweatshirt and went to the kitchen to make coffee. While it brewed, he leafed through a week’s worth of mail, assessing what needed to be addressed before the weekend with a operose sigh. This last rotation had been a decidedly long haul. Steaming mug in hand, he scooped up the pertinent mail and went outside. Both sets of French doors opened onto a small deck and today Mike chose the one facing east. He sank into the deck chair as the caws of seagulls and the hum of traffic filled the air. Resting his gaze on the Fairmont, he wondered what Delaney Richards was doing this fine morning.
She’d mentioned being in town for a wedding, presumably this weekend, but didn’t say how long into next week she’d be staying. Or whom she’d be staying with, he reminded himself with a grunt. Surely such a beautiful woman wouldn’t be at loose ends at a wedding. He was still mulling that over when Bruce Springsteen’s gravelly voice filled the air.
“This is the Hyatt Hotel and Casino Lake Tahoe, calling to confirm your Presidential Suite reservation for tonight.”
“That’s right.” Mike consulted his watch. “I should be there around five o’clock. You have my credit card number for the deposit.”
“Yes, that’s all been taken care of. I understand this is a bachelor party. There is nothing to indicate that refreshments,” the caller cleared his throat as if speaking in code,“or anything else is scheduled to be delivered to the room. Are you planning to enjoy the gaming and restaurants on the property? Or can we bring everything to you, perhaps?”
Chuckling, Mike put the man out of his misery. “That won’t be necessary.” He was long over that kind of bachelor party as was the groom. “There will only be a few of us. The rehearsal dinner is being held on the property as well, at Hues of Blue. We’ll be doing some gambling afterwards. There’s no live entertainment, per se.”
There was a relieved sigh on the other end of the line. “Very good then. We’ll look forward to seeing you this afternoon and accommodating you for the next few days.”
Mike responded in kind, then reverted his eyes to the Fairmont. He would probably be too busy over the weekend to give Delaney Richards a second thought. But just in case, he’d better decide where to ask her to dinner when he got back.
Watson Brewer had done his due diligence, but a picture was worth a thousand words. And he didn’t want to head up to Folsom until he had something concrete. His plan had been to hop on a plane to Chicago, kill two birds with one stone. But the old lady alone wasn’t worth the trek. It was the girl. For a guy who hadn’t seen his kid in two decades, Colton Richards sure yapped about her a lot, he snickered to himself. He nodded to the man in the red suit trimmed in gold and opted for the revolving door. The lobby lived up to its reputation, but didn’t compare to the Bellagio or the Venetian by a long shot.
“Welcome to the Fairmont. Checking in, sir?”
Watson flashed his best smile. “Just visiting a guest. Delaney Richards. I’ve forgotten the room number.”
“It’s against hotel policy to give out room numbers, but I can confirm if the guest is registered. You can use the house phone to contact her.” The woman half his age punched at the keyboard on the opposite side of the massive oak desk. Then her smile gave way to a frown. “I’m sorry. Ms. Richards checked out this morning.”
Watson swore under his breath, but kept his calculated smile bright. “I’m sure she said she’d be in town through the weekend.”
“Perhaps she had a last minute change of plans.”
Not according to his source at the airline. He ground his teeth, but didn’t let the frustration color his voice. “How odd that she wouldn’t have mentioned it. Could there be another reservation?”
The clerk narrowed her eyes in suspicion. “That information is confidential. But if you leave your card, I can pass it along should Ms. Richards return.”
“That won’t be necessary. I’ll find another way to contact her,” he replied smoothly. “Thanks for checking.” He turned on his heel and retraced his steps, feeling her skeptical stare on his back. Stepping out into the midmorning sunshine, he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the photograph. She sure was pretty. Pretty enough to be noticed. He shifted his gaze to the doorman, helping an elderly woman out of a taxi. He’d hoped to fly in a little lower on the radar than that. Questions raise more questions, he reminded himself. And he wanted to be the only asking them.
Lake Tahoe sparkled like diamonds under the boundless blue sky as Delaney entered Incline Village. The estate-like homes shrouded by towering pine trees were as large as the apartment building she’d grown up in, she reminded herself in awe. Reaching her destination, she threw the rental SUV into park and took a couple of deep breaths. She was giving herself props for making it this far when a tap on the window startled her. The eyes looking back at her were as cobalt a blue as the lake itself and the grin as wide as its breadth. Delaney felt the butterflies in her stomach start to settle as she opened the door and stood. Lindsay took her into a warm embrace and hugged her so tight that the two women rocked in place.
“Let me look at you,” Lindsay said by way of greeting, giving Delaney a thorough once-over. “Gorgeous as ever, but a little too thin.”
“You sound like my mother. I do eat.”
With a skeptical squint, she dropped an arm around Delaney’s shoulders and led her up the flagstone paved path. “We’ll have to work on that this weekend. I can’t wait to catch-up. We’ll get your bag later.”
They reached the two-tiered deck lined with red and white impatiens. “The blue will have to be sky,” Lindsay said, reading Delaney’s mind. “Note to self, it’s impossible to find blue annuals.”
“You did all of this yourself?” She took in the perfectly manicured yard, bursting with plants and flowers of all sizes and colors. “When you said you were gardening, I figured you meant a few pots.”
“I had to channel my nervous energy somehow. It became a labor of love.” Lindsay gestured to one of the chairs circling a slate top table. “Sit. I’ll get us something to drink.”
“I’ve been sitting for four hours,” Delaney countered, walking to the edge of the deck and imbibing the fresh mountain air. “I’ll be right here.”
“Suit yourself,” Lindsay tossed over her shoulder, blonde ponytail swinging like a pendulum on the back of her head.
Feeling more relaxed than she had in recent memory, Delaney contemplated the water lapping the fawn-colored shore. Her gaze was shifting upward, where rows of pines and aspens dotted the Sierras like soldiers standing at attention when Lindsay returned.
“Amazing how it looks the same, isn’t?” Standing next to her, Lindsay handed Delaney a glass of iced tea. “No matter how long you’ve been away.”
“It’s magnificent.” Delaney took a sip. “A sight for sore eyes from high-rises and strip malls.”
“You have a lake in Chicago too, if I remember correctly,” Lindsay pointed out with humor shining in her eyes.
“Not like this. I feel like I’m in another world. The air is so crisp, so clean.”
“Speaking of clean.” Shooting Delaney an pointed stare over the rim of her glass, Lindsay said, “Time for you to.”
Delaney played dumb. “Time for me to what?”
“To come clean. You’re still not yourself. I could hear it in your voice every time we spoke. What’s going on?”
“Nothing’s going on,” Delaney shot back inadequately.
“Maybe that’s the problem. Have you had a night out lately?”
“I’m going to have one tonight, aren’t I? And tomorrow night as well.”
“I mean a night out with a man.” Delaney opened her mouth to speak, but Lindsay barreled over her. “Not business-related. How long has it been?”
“I don’t know.” Delaney’s glance momentarily escaped to the sanctity of the rustic, craftsman-style house. “Is Brian around? I’m dying to meet him.”
“He’s in Reno picking up his daughter at the airport. Stop trying to change the subject.” Lindsay’s eyes softened as she went on. “It hurts me to see you like this, letting your life go by. If Ryan walked in here right now, would you forgive him and take him back?”
“No, of course not,” Delaney said and meant it.
“Then what are you waiting for? How many dates have you turned down?”
Delaney took a tasteless sip of tea. “None.”
“None?” Lindsay amazed. “Are all the men in Chicago blind? Or married?”
“Hardly,” Delaney began with a grunt. “I don’t really have the time or desire to date. Didn’t you feel that way too?”
Lindsay looked away as if mentally rewinding time, then replied heedfully, “Yes, Brian and I both felt that way. That’s the difference. Ryan has gone on with his life. You need to do the same.” She hesitated, then placing both glasses on the top of the deck railing, took Delaney’s hands in hers. “He’s not coming back for you, Laney.”
“I know.” Delaney fixed her eyes on the brown ski runs breaking up the verdant hills. “I realized that even before he eloped.” She heaved a sigh. “I don’t want him to. I guess somewhere along the way I gave up on true love.”
“I did too. So much so that I almost married Paul.” She turned Delaney by the shoulders to face her and looked her square in the eye. “I understand what it feels like to love someone that much and lose them. But what you had with Ryan wasn’t true love. So your true love is out there somewhere, waiting for you.”
Mike pushed the elevator call button repeatedly, frustrated with himself for getting a late start. Lindsay would be frantic by the time he got to the restaurant. Normally he would revel in getting under her skin, but this was different. As was going to a wedding without a date. Even if he and Jessica hadn’t called it quits, he wouldn’t have asked her to fly in. There were several women he might have asked if the wedding had been in San Francisco. But this was a weekend, not an evening. Too complicated.
Being in Tahoe again, however, was not complicated. Much of his childhood had been spent here, swimming in the lake in the summer and skiing through forests of frost-painted trees in the winter. He’d been thinking about diversifying his investments and buying a place up here would definitely complement his portfolio.
He walked briskly through the lobby, making mental notes of the casino’s layout for later. The last fringes of daylight were sliding behind the milky-white peaks of the Sierra Nevadas as he made his way through the lakeside restaurant. He put on an apologetic frown and clasped Brian’s shoulders from behind. “Sorry I’m late.”
Brian rose and took Mike into a brotherly hug. “No problem. We’re just getting started.”
“Hi, Uncle Mike,” came a soft voice from the table.
Mike bent down and kissed Brian’s daughter on the cheek. “Hi, yourself. How’s the most beautiful sophomore at USC?”
“I don’t know. I’m a technically a junior after the summer session.”
“That’s impossible. Just last week you were playing Barbies in my living room,” he teased. Secretly, that gave Mike pause. Kelsey had grown into a beautiful girl, the splitting image of her mother, with sable hair to Brian’s blonde and hazel eyes to his blue.
Brian shifted his proud gaze to the rest of the table. “Mike, you remember Moira Brody.”
“Of course.” Mike extended his hand to the fair-faced woman with a headful of black ringlet curls. “Nice to see you again.”
Instead of shaking it, she jumped up and embraced Mike from across the table. “You too,” she replied, emerald eyes sparkling.
The man beside her stood and offered his hand. “Paul Webster. Nice to meet you.”
Mike responded in kind and a silent message passed between them. Then his eyes swept the table draped in white linen and glistening china. “Where’s Lindsay?”
“Ladies room. She was getting a little restless waiting for the best man,” Brian told him with a chuckle in his eyes. “If you don’t want wine, go order a beer. My tab is open.”
Nodding in affirmation, Mike headed over to the mahogany bar. Brian had the best table in the house tonight, directly in front of the floor-to-ceiling window wall. When Mike looked beyond it, he saw a fire pit surrounded by Adirondack chairs and wooden benches. He was debating how far the deck extended onto the beach when he heard a familiar voice call his name. But when Mike turned around, he found the last person he could have expected. He felt his jaw drop, then blinked hard a few times, assuming she would disappear or morph into someone else.
But she didn’t.
Then he realized Lindsay was hugging him. “You made it,” she said. “I was getting a little nervous.” She broke away and gestured to the woman at her side. “Mike, this is—”
“Delaney Richards,” he managed to finish for her.
Lindsay’s gaze sliced between them in awe. “You two know each other?”
“I brought her plane in last night.”
“And carried my bag out to the gate for me,” Delaney added.
“This is the wedding you flew in for?”
A warm smile replaced the astonishment in her eyes. “Lindsay was my roommate in college.”
“Brian is my next door neighbor.”
“You’re the best man?”
Mike could do nothing but nod.
They were still beholding each other when Lindsay cleared her throat and interjected, “Well, I’d better get back to the table.” She directed her parting words at Delaney. “I’ll meet you there. Take your time.”
Delaney’s lips parted slightly and she watched Lindsay walk away, as if unsure whether to follow. Not wanting her to, Mike instantly stepped forward. “Can I get you a drink?” She smelled intoxicating; spicy and sexy, akin to the strapless dress she wore.
“No thanks,” she declined, meeting his gaze again. “I have a glass of wine at the table.”
Mike simply could not take his eyes off of her. After a long moment, Delaney suggested, “We should probably get back there too.”
Mike grabbed his beer from the bar and extended his arm. “After you.”
She complied, seemingly unaware of the male heads turning to undress her with their eyes as she walked toward the table. Of which Mike was one.
She turned, as if sensing he wasn’t behind her, and cocked her head to the side with a puzzled expression. “Mike? Are you coming?”
Mike shook off the stupor and made quick work of the space between them. Then, placing his hand at the small of her back without touching her, he guided her across the room.
There were still three vacant chairs at the table, one with a bird’s-eye view of the water and the mountains and two on the opposite side, facing the restaurant. Delaney stopped in front of one of the latter and addressed Kelsey, “Am I losing it, or did you move?”
Before Kelsey could respond, Lindsay piped up. “I asked her to scoot over so we could chat. You don’t mind, do you?”
“Of course not.” Delaney replied, starting to pull out one of the chairs.
Mike beat her to it. “Here,” he offered hurriedly as their arms brushed. He wondered if she’d also felt the dizzying twinge.
“Thanks.” She tossed him a look from under her lashes and sat down. And without a second’s debate Mike took the chair next to her, opting for the better view.
Chance Encounter by Martha O'Sullivan copyright 2020 by Martha O'Sullivan