Chapter 1The airport terminal was so crowded, Keri Matthews leaned against a wall, just waiting for a seat to open up. It was close to Thanksgiving, and traveling out of town seemed to be the 'in' thing for most residents of St. Petersburg, Florida.
A heavyset woman stood up from a chair near the end of one row and walked away with her purse, leaving a seat empty. Keri practically ran to it, falling into the seat before anyone else could grab it. She slipped off her right loafer and massaged her foot.
"You okay?" she heard from her left.
She turned, facing the most handsome man sitting beside her, sporting a military cut styling his brown hair and the lightest blue eyes possible.
"Uh, sorry." She put her foot back onto the floor and slipped it into her shoe. "I was on my feet wearing heels all day and this was the only available seat. I can leave if you're annoyed." She grabbed her purse and started to stand, but his hand on her arm stopped her.
"No, ma'am. I just wanted to know if you're okay. Is it your arch?"
She waved him off. "I'm fine."
He motioned toward her foot. "I'll look at it. I'm a doctor in the Army."
"Are you sure? I bet my feet stink."
He smiled. "Nothing I haven't smelled before. Give me your foot and I'll take a look."
"Actually, both of my feet hurt."
"Ah. Then give me both your feet and you can lie back and be waited on. That's what should happen to a beautiful blonde woman with blue eyes such as yourself."
What a guy. "Masseuses are nice and ones that compliment me are even better." She smiled, trying not to chuckle. Without a moment's hesitation, she slipped both of her feet out of their shoes and turned completely toward him.
Once he lifted her feet into his hands, he checked them over one at a time. "Man. Your feet stink."
She pulled back her legs, but his laughter and his hand stopped her. "I'm kidding you," he said, his gaze meeting her face. "Your feet smell like sweet daisies in springtime."
He massaged her sore foot, making her close her eyes and throw her head back in something feeling like ecstasy.
"Do you like that?"
"More than you know." She opened her eyes and watched him. "So what's wrong with my foot?"
"Your arch is falling. When's your flight?"
She checked her watch. "I have an hour and a half."
His face turned slightly confused, still massaging her foot. "Me, too. Where are you going?"
"Chicago. Home. Not my choice, but it's my one trip home for the year and I don't have to go home anymore for a while. You?"
He lowered that foot, then lifted her other foot. While massaging her left foot, he watched what he was doing. "Chicago, as well. But it's not going to be a good trip. I'm home on an emergency leave."
She pulled her foot from his hand and moved closer. "Why? What happened? Are you sick?"
He grinned, but she could see the pain on his face. "No, ma'am. My dad—" He stopped and glanced out over the room. "My dad's dying. They've given him a few days yet at the most. I flew here to talk to my sister, but she can't go to see Dad with me in Chicago—our hometown. I'm alone now."
"I'm so sorry," she said, lowering her voice. She reached out and gave the man a hug. "I'm so very sorry," she said into his ear. "Are you okay?"
She heard a slight sob as he hugged her back.
"I'm here for you," she said. "My name's Keri."
She heard him cry some more. "I'm Nick Albright." He backed away and wiped his cheeks. "Sorry. I know better."
She studied his face. "You're human. You're allowed to cry."
"No, I'm not." He stood up and inched away. "I'll be back. Save my seat."
"Sure thing." She put her bare feet up on the seat, and watched the people walking by, but ignored them, thinking about Nick. She wanted to do something nice for him.
He came back a few moments later. "I had to wash your scented feet smell off my hands." He tried to smile, looking down at her legs on his seat. "Now I get to sit on them."
"No." She moved her feet. "I have to use the restroom and check on my ticket. Watch my seat and I promise I'll be back." After she slipped on her shoes, she grabbed her purse and walked away, used the restroom, then walked back out, seeing his duffle bag on her seat. Nice guy to save it for her.
Keri approached the desk, getting the attention of the clerk. "Excuse me. Don't look up, but the man sitting behind me with the military cut—"
"The man watching you like he's checking you out?" She lifted her eyebrows. "He's fine."
"Yes, he is, but he's also hurting. His name is Nicholas Albright and he's a doctor, working for the Army. His father is dying in Chicago, and he's all alone. I'd like to pay to upgrade his seat to first class. Can I do that?"
"Honey, from the way he's checking you out, you need to be right up there beside him." She clicked on a few buttons, watching her screen. "Tell ya what we'll do. I'm going to send you both up there 'accidentally.'"
Keri opened her purse and pulled out her credit card. The woman touched Keri's hand. "No. We have freebies for both of you. Compliments of the house."
"Are you sure?" Keri asked. "I don't want to get you in trouble."
"You won't. I just love a happy ending." She handed Keri her business card, then pressed a few buttons on the computer. "Invite me to the wedding, if there is one."
Keri chuckled and looked at the card. "I like you, Charise. You can be my one of my bridesmaids, if this works out. I'd make you maid of honor, but my sister would beat you up."
"I have one of those, too." The woman winked. "That would be great." She handed Keri the new seat assignments. "Good luck, and make sure you listen to his pain. He needs someone and you're elected."
"Thanks. It'll be a challenge but I can't wait." She leaned up. "Did you see the dimples on that guy when he smiles?"
"You betcha, girlfriend. Now go get 'em. You're wasting time."
"Right." She smiled, turned, and walked back to her seat. "Did you miss me?" Keri asked.
"Yes, actually, I did. I didn't mean to unload on you."
"Never." Her gaze met his eyes. "You said your sister lives around here. Maybe I know her?"
"Maybe. Her name's Rita Venema. She kept her married name."
Keri sat up straighter in surprise. "She has three kids—Pearl, Rico, and Iris, right?"
He nodded. "Sure does. She's a single mother and can't get away or afford to go. I told her I'd pay for all of them to go with me, but she said the kids have enough sadness in their life with a deadbeat dad. She doesn't want them to watch their grandfather die, too."
"I have Pearl in school. I teach sixth grade. They also live in the same apartment building I do."
"Is that right? So how's Pearl doing?"
Keri took a deep breath, shaking her head slightly. "She's okay." She hated lying, but didn't want to tell anything to this man.
"That's not what Rita tells me. She's failing. She likes the boys and has been caught trying to smoke cigarettes behind the school."
"Hmmm…so you talk to your sister a lot."
He nodded. "She's all I have left of family."
She took his hand. "You have me to talk to. Anytime, anywhere."
He tried to smile, but she could see the pain behind his eyes. "You don't have to."
"I want to. It's a big difference." She opened her purse and pulled out her business card, then wrote her email address on the back. "Since you're Pearl's uncle, you need to have this in case anything happens and you can't get through to them. They live two floors down from me." She handed it to him. "Anytime. My cell phone number's on there, too, if you want to call me in Chicago. I'll save me from hearing about my wonderful sister's love life and my brother's non-life being tied down to his family." She rolled her eyes and he smiled, showing his dimples.
"So if I massage your feet you'll give me your number?" His blue eyes met her face while those dimples almost made her want to kiss him.
"Yeah. That and you're related to one of my students."
He chuckled, looking downward. "What do you do for fun in Chicago?"
"Not much." She moved closer. "But you could save me from my evil family up there. Want to go out for fun?"
"What did you have in mind?"
"I have to be careful in case the uncle of one of my students wants to spread rumors. Dancing, maybe?"
"That sounds like fun. Dinner?"
"Absolutely. And I'm paying."
He laughed, shaking his head. "Never with me. I'm employed, remember?"
"Yeah. About that. How long do you have off?"
"Just until the funeral, then I ship out again. They need me in Germany."
"What do you do over there?"
He took a deep breath. "I'm a surgeon at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. I did some of my undergrad in high school, then went to one year of college and med school before joining the Army. They sent me to a little bit of training and I went to Germany."
"When is your tour up?"
He blew out a breath. "They want me to stay longer, but I should be getting out in April. I'm training a guy right now to take my place, so I can come home and get on with my life."
"What do you want to do when you get home?"
"I want to go into private practice. My specialty is orthopedics."
"Sort of." He studied her face. "Want to fix your feet?"
"Yeah. Tell me, oh wise doctor, what should I do?"
He took her hand. "Come with me and trust me to figure it out."
"Sure." She grabbed her purse while he threw his duffle bag over his shoulder, and took her to a shop near the terminal. He showed her some sole inserts to fix her feet, and described how to make it work. But she wasn't listening to his words—she was watching his eyes and those dimples.
When they were done and he'd bought her some of the insoles, they grabbed cups of coffee and went back to the terminal area. The place contained fewer people and they found seats quickly.
"I have a surprise for you," Keri said. "Now that we're foot friends."
"Foot friends?" He laughed at her. "You're a trip."
"Yeah. Just don't get upset with me. I talked to that nice clerk, Charise, and wouldn't you know, they had empty seats in first class. She upgraded both of our seats to the front of the plane."
"You did?" He smiled yet again. She loved to see his smile.
"Yeah. Free, too." Keri leaned closer. "She wants to come to our wedding and be a bridesmaid. I'm afraid she must be doing drugs, so let's hope she's not the pilot."
Nick laughed and leaned closer to her. "You're a godsend. So are we sitting together?"
She pulled the boarding passes out of her purse, and handed him the one with his name on it. "Well, what do you know? We are. How coincidental."
"I see that. You just want me to rub your feet again."
"You found me out." She sipped her coffee. "I am serious about getting out when we get to Chicago." She studied his face. "I'd suggest not coming to my house, though."
"Dad's going to ask if you're a serial killer and your life's goals. Then I'll have to be home by ten or he'll call his buddies to find me."
She leaned closer. "Dad's the chief of police."
She wasn't sure which were more impressive—Nick's raised eyebrows or his mouth that had fallen open. She felt like she was in high school all over again.