Every other weekend, Stella buys a ticket on the next flight out of town and leaves her life behind. Home is a place with too many memories, and departure is the sweetest possible distraction.
As soon as she arrives at her destination, Stella visits the airport bar. She orders a drink and waits for the right guy to come along. A bored businessman, a backpacker, a baggage handler just off shift. If he’s into a hot, no-strings hookup, he’s perfect. Each time is a thrilling escape from reality that gives the term layover a whole new meaning.
When Stella meets the enigmatic Matthew in Chicago one weekend, she hits some serious turbulence. Something about him tells her she’s not the only one running from the past. The connection between them is explosive, and for the first time, one taste is not enough for Stella. But returning to find a gorgeous man waiting for her is the easy part—facing the reason she’s there is a whole other matter….
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These are tricks a lot of women know. Stella had learned and later, re-learned them. Men like silky hair and clinging dresses, high heels and gartered stockings like the ones she wears now. In her twenties she taught herself how to be sexy for a man; it wasn’t until she was older that she discovered it was so much better to be sexy for herself.
Her feet whisper on the cool industrial tiles as she tips her scarlet-soled pumps into the bin and pushes it along the rollers toward the x-ray machine. Next, her bag, which she affectionately calls the Tardis. Like the traveling police box time machine from her son’s favorite TV show, Stella’s bag is bigger on the inside. It can hold a weekend’s worth of everything a woman needs to make herself beautiful, plus a book in case she doesn’t find anyone worth being beautiful for.
Her coat goes next. She’d prefer to keep it on, but even if they let her through the scanner with it, the buckle will set off the alarm. Then again, so will the clips on her garters, probably. At this point, Stella knows most of the TSA agents who work at the Harrisburg International airport by name. They still have to pat her down, of course, but by now it’s become sort of a game for them and for her.
“Hi, Pete.” She doesn’t miss the way his gaze dips to her seam-stockinged toes and lingers on her calves when she turns to add her cellphone to a second bin before pushing that one through behind the first. She can’t see it, but she’s sure he takes a good, long look at her ass too.
This is good.
It doesn’t matter that Pete is at least her father’s age and wears a walrus mustache. Or that he’s married with kids and grandkids whose pictures he proudly displays on his phone. Or even that the gum he chews constantly can’t cover up the pervasive odor of bad breath. It doesn’t matter that she will never take Pete home and fuck him.
It only matters that she could, if she wanted to. If she tried hard enough. If she let him stand a little too close, breathe a little too hard, if she shifted just the right way so the slit in her dress parted just enough to give him a glimpse of her bare thighs.
Stella is pretty sure Pete thinks she’s a relatively expensive call girl, or at the very least some rich man’s mistress. It’s the clothes, hair, the manicured nails. It’s the shoes. There’s no way for anyone to mistake anything about her for a woman on a business trip, unless her business is pleasure. Pete doesn’t know she doesn’t get paid for any of this, at least not with money.
“Where you off to tonight?” Pete lets the wand move up and down her body as she holds up her arms. The wand beeps around her thighs. He moves it again, slowly. Up and down. “Sorry about this, Stella.”
“No problem.” Her warm smile isn’t forced. He doesn’t know it’s as much artifice as the fake lashes and fingernails. The only difference is she doesn’t need glue to hold it in place. “I’m used to it by now.”
He waves her to the side, where a pair of TSA agents will pat her down, explaining the process every step of the way and asking repeatedly for her permission to touch her in places that no longer even feel intimate. Stella makes it easy for them. She’s seen people who complain and scowl, who grumble about their “freedoms” or make stupid jokes about the agents’ sexuality as though anyone could possibly get turned on by having to put their hands on strangers who didn’t bother to look in the mirror before they left the house and could really use a couple hundred hours’ time in the gym. Then again, she thinks with a small, secret smile, she shouldn’t be surprised at what turns people on.
The agent bending to slide her fingers up Stella’s calf is new, or at least has never worked the Friday night shift before when Stella’s passing through. Her name tag says Maria. She has dark hair, slicked into a tight bun that can’t disguise the natural curl. Big dark eyes fringed with lashes that don’t need to be glued on. Her mouth isn’t painted red, but it’s lush and glistening just the same. She does her job efficiently, barely cracking a smile. Not unfriendly, but definitely distant. When she looks up, Stella, who’s looking down, thinks she understands why.
Stella’s never been with a woman, but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t thought about it. These tricks — they work on women too. That gleam of interest, however faint and trying to be ignored, calls to her just as much as it does in a man’s eyes, because all of this effort Stella makes isn’t so much about the wanting as being wanted.
When Maria’s fingertips skate along the inside of her thighs, Stella’s reaction is immediate but not unconscious. Her feet shift on the blue-painted marks on the floor, the rough paint that could snag her stockings if she’s not careful. The tiniest amount, not enough to draw attention to herself, but the agent notices. Their eyes meet. Under the layers of silk and lace, Stella throbs.
Maria looks away.
What would it be like to hide yourself that way, so the world can’t guess something that is such a basic part of you? Such a defining thing? Stella understands. Everyone has secrets, and most of them are about sex.
Maria doesn’t look at her again, not throughout the entire rest of the inspection, and her voice doesn’t falter as she gives, in monotone, the speech and instructions Stella could recite from memory. Stella’s voice, however, has gone husky when she gives her permission for every single pat of Maria’s hands against her. By the time it’s over, Stella feels flushed and shivery; she fumbles with her belongings and Maria has to help with her coat and bag.
“Take your time, ma’am,” Maria says in a neutral voice. “Have a nice day.”
Stella slips into her shoes and pulls the bag along behind her, her coat over her arm. She doesn’t look back, keeps her head high, draws in breath after breath to keep herself steady. In the bathroom, she locks herself inside a stall and leans against the chilly metal, eyes closed, and pushes her hands into the slit of her wrap dress. Up the insides of her thighs, over the stockings and bare flesh, to press her clit through her panties. Her back arches. Her nipples are hard. She lets herself imagine for a few moments what it would be like to have that woman’s face against her flesh. Those lush lips on her cunt. Would it be different than the beard-rough touch of a man? Probably. She laughs at herself, but silently, and at the sink splashes water on a paper towel before pressing it to the back of her neck.
She studies her reflection. Dark-lined eyes against pale skin, those red lips. Her hair is naturally auburn, worn to the shoulders, usually worn with the ends curling up, but not tonight. She wears it in a deep side part now, pinned behind one ear and hanging loose on the other. Because she’s alone in the bathroom, she allows herself to give the woman in the mirror a sly smile and an assessing gaze. Stella doesn’t stare at herself because she’s vain. She does it so she knows how she looks to other people. She does it so she can be sure the expressions she feels on her face look real, her smile bright or sexy or sympathetic as needed and not some Joker-faced grin. She used to never have to think about how she looked, but that was a long time ago. She was a different woman then, one who never worried about her makeup or hair or if she was going to scare someone with her smile.
She’s gotten better at it.