Chapter One

 

“I DON’T bloody believe this.” Nathaniel “Nate” Dunn took a deep breath. “So, any idea when my flight might actually leave?”

The woman at the counter gave him what she probably thought was a pleasant smile. Instead it came across as condescending with a touch of oh help me, God, how stupid is this guy? “I’ve already told you—” She glanced at his ticket. “—Mr. Dunn… Nathaniel… I don’t have that information. The fog will lift when it decides to lift, and we can’t begin to reschedule flights until that time. In the meantime, you’ll have to wait like everyone else.”

“You don’t understand. I have to be in Christchurch this afternoon. I have a job interview tomorrow.”

“Of course you do.” The woman seemed ready to dismiss him but then appeared to reconsider. “If you’re desperate, perhaps you can catch the afternoon ferry sailing to Picton and then a flight from either Blenheim or Nelson.”

“The ferries are full.” Nate read the name on her badge—Heather Rawlins. “Ms. Rawlins, I’ve already thought of that.” He waved his hand to indicate the very full airport. Many of those in line behind him were students. Several of them looked very young, and they had parents hovering around them. Probably their first time away from home, and not a great start to a course of study at either Canterbury or Otago universities. “Uni starts back last week of February. That’s next week. There’s only me and several hundred others trying to make it to the South Island.”

“You’d better settle in and wait, then, hadn’t you? This might take a while.” Heather looked past him. “Next, please.”

“Charming,” Nate muttered. Why the hell had the fog decided to pick today of all days to turn up? Beautiful weather for weeks, and on the only day he needed to fly out of Wellington, the bloody stuff foiled his plans. His flatmate, Amy, had warned him to be prepared for delays when they hadn’t been able to see the airport from across the harbor that morning, but he hadn’t listened. Fog in the morning didn’t mean the stupid stuff would hang around all day. Typical of his luck lately. “Windy Wellington” and today there wasn’t even a breeze to blow the fog out.

It was a conspiracy.

Much like the rest of his life. One could only take so much of pretending everything was hunky-dory and plastering on a false smile. He was sick of it. Bad enough that Glenn—who he’d thought was the “one,” the guy he’d be with forever—had dumped him, but to find out his job of the last ten years was finishing as well? And now this….

“Next, please,” Heather repeated.

“Excuse me, sir,” a man behind him said in an American accent. “There’s a line here, and I’m sure the lady has done all she could to help you.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Nate mumbled. He moved to the side but didn’t walk away. Although he knew he was being difficult, once he got started, he couldn’t stop. He was on a roll, and this shitty morning was the icing on a very shitty year.

A year that was supposed to be better than the last one but so far had started off way worse.

Maybe he should have given in to his initial urge to curl up into a ball and ignore life, the universe, and everything. But then that would have been boring, wouldn’t it? That was what Glenn had called him, and heaven forbid he let that arsehole be right about anything.

Nate would give Glenn “boring.” He wasn’t boring. He was the least boring person he knew. Wasn’t he?

Oh God.

What if Glenn was right? While Nate knew he wasn’t the most exciting person in the world, he’d always been comfortable with his existence. What if he’d been too comfortable?

And what if this whole mess was a sign he shouldn’t be going for this job?

On the other hand, if he wasn’t qualified, why would they give him an interview? The woman he’d talked to seemed to think Nate might be exactly the person they were looking for to run their new gallery. The job was the opportunity of a lifetime, not to mention one hell of a move up from his current job—the one that was about to disappear out from under him. Opportunities like this didn’t come up often, but the quake in Christchurch meant rebuilding, and that offered him the chance to be involved in a project right from the beginning, to put his mark on it and make a name for himself. But that wasn’t the only appeal. They’d asked for some of his sketches after he’d let it slip that he was an artist, and after he sent them, they seemed really excited by his work.

The whole thing was a dream come true. Nate had spent the last ten years watching others have their art celebrated while he pretended it didn’t hurt that his art would never be on display.

Except now everything was all turning into a nightmare. No matter how good he was or how well he could wow the interview panel, none of that made a damn bit of difference if he couldn’t get there for the interview. His life was going to custard—no, it had already done that—and this was just the encore. The extremely sucky icing on the top.

Heather handed a slip across the counter to the American. “I’m sorry we can’t offer more, Mr. Beaumont, but this food voucher is valid for today only and you can use it at the food court.”

Food voucher?

Nate pushed past Beaumont. “You didn’t offer me a food voucher!” he said indignantly.

 

 

ALL THE time Rusty had been waiting for his turn to talk to the airline agent, he’d been practicing the patience his Buddhist Vietnamese mother had tried so hard to instill in him. He knew exactly what she would say if she saw him stuck in line waiting to talk to the Air New Zealand agent about his delayed flight while the guy in front of him huffed and puffed and demanded the agent fix his problems—which obviously she couldn’t do.

“Breathe deep. Remember mindfulness. Embrace the suffering so you can find peace.”

Right. Sure, Mom.

And this guy had been making him suffer by acting like the world should bow to his wishes. Certainly not because he’s an ass, of course; it’s because he’s sad.

I’m supposed to love him.

And now here Mr. Grumpy was, butting in with his nasty attitude. He didn’t get a voucher? Fine, ask for one, but not like that!

Why the hell has he been standing around at my elbow eavesdropping, anyway? I should have already told him to get lost. Of course, he knew the reason he hadn’t done that. It wouldn’t have been polite. His mom’s influence again. Courtesy ranked as one of her top goals.

Hell, Beaumont! She gave you Thao for a middle name—it means courteous!

So instead of cursing at the guy—Heather had called him Dunn—he said, “Excuse me, sir.” The sir had nothing to do with his mom. Once a Marine, always a Marine, the saying goes, and when one was raised by a Marine dad, the habits stuck all the harder. “I understand you’re unhappy, but there’s no call for you to be rude.”

But Dunn leaned farther over the counter and said, “My voucher, please.”

Rusty’s temper, deeply buried most of the time but not inherently cool, almost blew then—would have, if Heather hadn’t responded as she did.

“That’s true, sir,” she said. “Here’s one for you as well, then.”

Dunn made no move to walk away, though, continuing to hover way too close. Rusty doggedly returned his attention to Heather, who was apologizing on behalf of all New Zealand for fogging him in. She hoped it didn’t “mar his experience.”

He thought, the fact that Mr. Grumpy is still standing here breathing my air is marring it a whole lot more than the fog. But outwardly he smiled back at Heather. “Can’t be helped, ma’am. Can you tell me how long the fog is likely to last?”

“Well, this doesn’t happen often, Mr. Beaumont,” she said, but Rusty wasn’t to find out what else she’d been about to say, because Mr. Grumpy-Dunn interjected an oh-so-pleasant observation.

“Bullshit!”

Rusty didn’t really hear the rest of what Dunn said, busy as he was, trying to talk himself out of taking the arrogant man down a peg. Ultimately, he controlled himself, hearing his mom’s voice again.

“Compassion, Thao. That’s the key.”

Right, Rusty’s inner cynic responded, the man is an idiot because he’s suffering. Abso-fucking-lutely.

“Listen, man,” he said. “I know this is a drag. But she can’t fix it, right? Your pack looks heavy. Why don’t you go find a place to sit down? Take a load off.” He didn’t wait for Dunn’s response because he could hardly stand to look at his poor-me face. Instead he took a deep breath and turned back to thank Heather for the food voucher.

“I’m sorry the voucher’s not much,” she said, “but at least you can have a meal on us.” She apologized again, as if it was her fault the airline she worked for didn’t offer anything more in the way of comforts for stranded passengers, and then added, “And we’ve got you on a standby list. Keep in touch!”

Dunn, who now stood practically on top of Rusty, snapped at Heather, “So, am I on that list too?”

A step over the line, Rusty thought, an instant before his temper flared. “Back off, dude!” he growled in his Military Police “that’s it for your shit” tone. Although, on second thought, he wasn’t sure how effective the growl was when he wasn’t wearing an MP’s uniform and wasn’t armed. And anyway, as soon as he said it, he realized maybe he shouldn’t have. Dunn already looked contrite—in fact he looked miserable.

Dunn said, “I’m sorry, really,” and he seemed sincere. After Heather assured him that of course he was on the list, he turned and finally stepped away.

Ah, Mom, maybe you’re right. Maybe the guy is simply having a bad day.

Rusty thanked Heather and wished her a good day, then turned to look for some indication of where the food court might be found.

Not an asshole, a rough day.

“And,” he muttered to himself, “as long as he has it as far from me as possible, we’ll both be fine.”

As small as the airport was, Rusty was surprised at the throng of people in the terminal. Looking for a place to eat, he passed by Mojo Coffee, a place serving Asian food, and a couple of other spots. Long lines and packed seating at every single one. Finally he found a cafeteria-style eatery, which also had long lines, but he reasoned that—with about a dozen people ahead of him before he’d even get to pick up a tray—by the time he got to the cashier, some of the diners would clear out.

With nothing better to do, he gave in to the temptation to people-watch and looked around the cafeteria. Packed was too mild a word to describe the area, and if he hadn’t moments earlier seen the crowds at other eateries in the terminal, he would have assumed the place held every stranded passenger in the entire airport.

When he got a few feet closer, he noticed the selections looked slim—lots of empty space in the steam and ice tables. Apparently the staff wasn’t keeping up with demand, what with the flood of customers.

The fiftyish woman in front of him proclaimed, “This isn’t worth it, Thelma. Do you want to try Subway?”

“No, Viv,” Thelma said, looking disgusted. “Let’s just go out to the car and drive to a café.”

The two women vacated their spots in line, grumbling loudly and taking with them a gray-haired man who looked as though he might have a headache. That seemed like a positive event to Rusty, who was getting more and more worried about the disappearing supply of food up ahead. But then he saw who now occupied the place right in front of him in the line.

Turn around and walk away, Beaumont.

But I’m starving….

Dunn turned and met Rusty’s gaze, looking as unhappy about the coincidence as Rusty felt. They stared at each other for a moment, during which Dunn looked as though he was having a private debate about whether to speak.

“Hello again.” Rusty tried to keep his tone neutral. He didn’t want to set off the man’s temper.

“Mr. Beaumont,” Dunn said, acknowledging the greeting so quietly it almost seemed he was chewing the words.

When Dunn looked away and moved forward in line, Rusty figured he’d sit on the opposite side of the café from wherever Mr. Grumpy sat, and that would be that. He took a few deep breaths, retrieving his inner calm, which seemed to want to flee whenever this guy was nearby. The breathing worked only for seconds, though. As soon as he noticed Dunn had asked the server to load the last two pieces of roast chicken onto his plate, inner calm tucked its tail and ran.

Ass, Rusty thought.

Dunn took a minute to survey the meager side dish offerings, then asked the stressed-looking server, “Is there enough gravy left in there for a serving?”

Apparently there was, but not a spoonful more.

When it was his turn, Rusty did get a watery scoop of the potatoes, but when he asked the guy whether more gravy would be coming out of the kitchen, all he got was a nasty look.

Maybe there’s some sort of grumpiness variant in the New Zealand gene pool….

He contemplated passing the guy his tray, saying “never mind,” and leaving, but he was hungry, and he’d be willing to bet every other place in the airport that served food was running out as well.

The only meat selection left was two pieces of what seemed like they might be pork or beef or some old man’s wallet. He accepted them and forced himself to say thank you. At the end of the line, he had the questionable meat and potatoes, some wilting salad, and a slice of dried-out bread on his tray. Not exactly gourmet cuisine. He was tempted to believe the food in New Zealand was what made people grumpy, rather than genetics, but he’d had some damn good business lunches during this trip, so the theory didn’t pan out. Deciding not to try and explain the phenomenon, he resolutely waited his turn at the cashier.

But then Dunn turned around and looked at Rusty’s tray, saw the sad, gravyless potatoes and overcooked meat, and his jaw dropped. He leaned to look around Rusty, and apparently took in for the first time how truly sparse the pickings were, overall, in the food line. “Here,” he said to Rusty. “Trade plates with me, Mr. Beaumont. I… I didn’t realize….”

“Russell,” Rusty spluttered, taken completely by surprise. “Call me Rusty. I’m fine with this.” He lifted his tray slightly, indicating what “this” meant. They stared at each other again, the atmosphere between them oddly far more uncomfortable than it had been when Rusty had felt certain Dunn likely never thought of anyone’s needs other than his own.

Dunn shifted foot to foot and then with a return to the annoyed tone he’d used earlier said, “Give me your voucher, then.” Apparently, Rusty’s completely flabbergasted—and pissed off—expression made an impression, because Dunn added, “No, I mean… look at the menu board. The vouchers won’t even cover the whole plate of food. I’ll just pay for the rest. I feel bad for taking the chicken, the gravy, the coleslaw—”

“I don’t even like coleslaw.” Rusty knew his interruption missed the point as soon as he said it. “I’m sorry. Listen, Mr. Gru… Mr. Dunn. I’m fine with what I have. I don’t know if the café’s always this bad—”

“I think it’s the crowd.”

“Yeah, makes sense. Anyway, the airline’s too cheap to cover a meal, and the café is swamped, not your fault. Right? I’m fine.”

“Sir?” The cashier looked aggrieved with Dunn for holding up the line.

After Rusty paid, he scanned for an empty seat and found a grand total of two, at the same table—a table Dunn had apparently seen as well, as he was headed that way. He breathed deeply. Calm, Rusty. It could be worse.

They arrived at the table at the same moment, and Rusty nodded at the chair nearest Dunn. “Have a seat. Looks like we’re sharing.”

Dunn put his tray down but took a step closer to Rusty. “I’m Nate,” he said, holding out his hand for a shake.

Rusty’s response came automatically, clasping hands and looking into Dunn’s eyes.

Notable, he thought. They were gray… or maybe green, but very light, and…. What? Maybe… sultry? The guy wasn’t bad-looking, to be honest. Not too tall. A hardworking man, it seemed—a little rough around the edges, could use a haircut, and hadn’t shaved for a couple of days. Damn, exactly the type to catch my eye. It seemed kind of amazing he hadn’t noticed the first moment he saw him. Although it was hard to notice anyone’s looks when they were broadcasting a bad attitude. Besides, even if Nate had been sweet as Mom’s banh bo nuong, Rusty probably wouldn’t have paid his looks much attention.

He released Nate’s hand and, as they took their seats, reminded himself, Not in the market. Two years ago, he’d been back from deployment, deeply in love, and wrapped up in wedding and honeymoon plans. But his fiancé, Geoff—after surviving two tours in Afghanistan—died from a brain injury sustained in a freak accident on an icy suburban sidewalk. The ordeal and the pain of Geoff’s loss wrecked Rusty, and it stripped him of any desire for love and commitment. After he’d survived a year or so, he realized he needed touch, needed to feel human. He’d dated, but never tried a second date. He’d given anonymous hookups a try, but he had a difficult time even summoning lust for such an encounter. Every time a man touched him, he remembered how it had been with Geoff, and the moment turned sour. So he took himself out of the game, and he figured he’d stay there for life.

Rusty came back to the present, startled by the realization Nate had said something to him and he’d been staring into the distance in response, unintentionally rude. Quickly, he said, “Sorry, I…. You… reminded me of someone just then. What did you say?”

Nate smiled for an instant, transforming him entirely. “I asked if you wanted coffee. I’m going to get some.”

“Yeah! Thanks. Coffee will be great.”

Innocently, Nate asked, “Do you like it sweet?”

Oh my, yes, Rusty thought, but caught himself before he spoke. Feeling heat rising in his cheeks, he responded, “Uh, no…. No sugar. Black is fine.”

 

 

I COULD do sweet. Nate felt himself blush because he hadn’t been thinking about coffee. Glad he hadn’t said the words out loud, he mumbled, “I’ll be right back.”

Crap. What was wrong with him? A hot guy blushed and Nate felt like he was back in high school.

He snuck a look back at Rusty and licked his lips. The guy was hot. How had he not noticed him before? Short dark hair, with lovely skin to go with it. With watercolor, he’d render it with a touch of sepia to darken a terra-cotta wash—maybe ochre when he blushed. Rusty’s brown eyes crinkled endearingly at the side right before embarrassment colored his skin. Nate’s split second of amusement had quickly given way to sympathy. The blush made Rusty seem more vulnerable for a moment. Not to mention hot and cute. Hmm….

“You still want coffee, or are you just standing there holding up the line?”

Nate looked up in surprise at the comment from the girl behind the counter. She smiled at him, and her eyes twinkled. Fuck, she was flirting with him, and he’d probably been ignoring her for God knew how long.

“I’m just standing there holding up the line,” he said, feeling bad for his attempt at humor when her face fell. “Sorry, yeah, I am getting coffee. Two cups. One black, one white with sugar, thanks.”

“There you go, sir.” Her tone was brisk and polite now. He didn’t bother to tell her she was completely barking up the wrong tree. He glanced back at Rusty. Shit, he’d been so rude to him, and although Rusty seemed to have accepted his apology, some groveling or at least an explanation was in order.

His phone rang as he maneuvered his way through the crowd to their table. He set the coffee down quickly, sloshing some onto the saucers, and grabbed the phone from his pocket.

“Mr. Dunn?” The voice on the other end didn’t sound familiar, and he checked the number, breathing a sigh of relief when he realized it was the gallery.

“Yes. I rang and left a message about half an hour ago.” Nate had worried his potential employer hadn’t got his message, but he couldn’t do anything else when his call went straight to voicemail. He’d explained about the issues with the flight and hoped they understood. “I’m really sorry I can’t make the interview tomorrow morning, but it looks as though there won’t be any flights in time. We’re completely fogged in here. Can we reschedule?”

The silence at the other end of the line seemed to go on forever. Nate sat down heavily on the chair opposite Rusty while he waited for a reply and tried not to seem as nervous as he felt. If he didn’t get this interview, he didn’t know what he’d do. This would be his dream job. Not just that, but it was the only gallery that had given him an interview. Damn it! He didn’t want to go back to working construction. He couldn’t—not after all the experience he’d gained setting up gallery shows over the last ten years.

Rusty gave him a concerned look, but Nate shrugged and put up his hand to signal silence. Not that he expected Rusty to interrupt the phone call, but he wasn’t taking any chances.

Finally he got a reply.

“Sorry for the delay, Mr. Dunn. I’ve spoken to my boss, and she’s going to try to reschedule. She can’t make any promises, though, as it’s been a busy week, and we had hoped to find our successful candidate tomorrow.”

Nate sighed. “I understand,” he said. So much for a new start. This day kept getting worse, not better. “Thanks for trying.”

“Hold on a moment, please.” The receptionist put him on hold again, complete with music—this time it was Dave Dobbyn and Herbs’ “Slice of Heaven.”

“Won’t be a moment,” he mouthed to Rusty. “Sorry.”

“No problem,” Rusty mouthed. “Everything okay?”

Nate shrugged.

“Are you free Monday morning?” the receptionist asked. “We can see you at eleven.”

“Yes, that would be great.” Nate’s boss wouldn’t have a problem with him taking time off, as she knew he had to find another job, and he wasn’t going to miss this opportunity. “Thank you. I really appreciate it.”

“See you Monday, then. Have a good day, Mr. Dunn, and thanks for letting us know.”

Nate stared at his phone for a moment before shoving it back into his pocket. They’d given him another chance. God, what if the airport got fogged again? His plans to get there the night before for an early-morning interview hadn’t worked this time. First flight available, he’d take it. Spending a few extra days in Christchurch was better than getting screwed over again by the weather in Wellington.

“Get everything worked out?” Rusty asked.

“Yeah, it’s sweet as.” Nate had a plan in place now. Life was always better when he had a plan. Not knowing made him edgy. A place for everything and everything in its place, and all that.

“Sweet as what?” Rusty sounded amused and puzzled.

“Huh? Oh right. It’s a common expression here. You know. Sweet as, hot as, cold as. Means you don’t have to figure out what to compare it to, because there isn’t anything.” Nate hoped that made sense, took a gulp of coffee, then wished he hadn’t. “Ugh. It’s nearly cold and tastes… well, not so good.” Hopefully the food was better, although looking at it didn’t do much for his appetite.

He looked up to meet Rusty’s gaze and said, “I’m really sorry about before. This whole day had gone to custard, and I wasn’t dealing well. I shouldn’t have behaved the way I did.”

“Gone to…. Oh, um, I get it. Apology accepted,” Rusty said. He didn’t ask about the phone call. Obviously showing his good manners in contrast to Nate’s courtesy having disappeared out the window earlier.

Rusty sipped his coffee, and Nate found himself watching him, fascinated. He couldn’t help but fantasize about Rusty’s physique—from the little he could see under Rusty’s T-shirt, he had a decent six-pack and looked very fit. Probably worked out. Not like Nate, who had never set foot in a gym.

“Do you live in Wellington, or are you trying to get home?”

Nate realized Rusty was talking. He needed to stop zoning out. It wasn’t only rude; it was…. So not going there. “Yeah, I live here. I have… had a job interview in Christchurch I was trying to get down there for. That was what the phone call was about. Luckily they’ve managed to reschedule. So… are you here on business or pleasure?”

Rusty coughed, wheezed, and turned dark red. Crap, was he choking? Nate pushed back his chair to go to his aid, but Rusty shook his head. “Sorry,” he said. “Coffee went down the wrong way. I’m here on business. Spent most of the time sitting in front of a screen, which is something I could have done at home.”

“What a pain,” Nate said. “No point in coming down to New Zealand and not seeing the scenery. Wellington area’s got some great sights, when it’s not fogged in and if you don’t mind the wind. Days like today weird me out a bit. I grew up here, and a day without wind isn’t normal.” He lowered his voice and leaned in closer. “There’s a street down by the waterfront that you can usually only cross by hanging on to a rope secured from either side of it.”

Rusty blinked as though unsure whether to believe him or not. “Seriously?” He asked the question so earnestly, Nate couldn’t help but laugh.

“Nope,” he said. “Local urban legend, but I can show you the spot. That corner’s really bad in a good southerly.”

Rusty grinned.

Nate liked a guy with a decent sense of humor.

“I hear New Zealand’s full of those urban legends, and some backcountry ones too. I had hoped to see more of the country while I was here, but it didn’t work out.”

Rusty was soft-spoken and definitely well educated, but Nate detected a bit of a regional accent. One of America’s Southern states, maybe?

“Perhaps another time. Though I’m not sure I’ll ever be here again.” Rusty glanced at his watch. “I wonder how long they’re going to keep us in suspense.”

“Hours,” Nate said. “I’ve seen fogs like these before. They’re a pain in the arse. One of the problems about the airport being by the sea. Fog rolls in and can last for hours, sometimes days, and meantime all the flights back up. Bad time of year too with uni starting, as there are a lot of kids trying to get down south.”

Rusty’s face fell. “Wonderful,” he mumbled. “Looks like it’s going to be a night at the airport for me.”

“Why don’t we ask for an update once we’re finished eating?” Nate suggested. He wouldn’t wish a night at the airport on anyone, not even the annoyingly polite American, whom he had to admit he was warming to. Rusty wasn’t so bad, after all. Shame they didn’t have more time to get to know each other. “How long is your layover in Christchurch? You were heading there, right? Same flight as me?”

“Good idea,” Rusty said, “and yes. I’m catching a flight to Los Angeles from there later tonight. Or I was supposed to.” He pushed his plate away. “If you’re starving, feel free to finish off this stuff. I didn’t touch the second slice of… is it beef? My jaw got tired of chewing.”

“Thanks, but I’ll leave it.” Nate chuckled. If they managed to get a flight, he’d wait to eat until he reached Christchurch. If not, he’d grab something at home. Nate reached for his coffee cup, then decided against that too. “Tell you what. If we have to wait any longer, I’ll take you somewhere that serves a decent cup of coffee.”

Rusty brightened. “Deal,” he said, “and thanks.” He retrieved his bags from under his feet and stood. “No offense to your airport, but I can’t wait to get out of here one way or another, even if it’s only for an hour or so.”

“No offense taken, and yeah, the feeling’s mutual. Come on, let’s find out what’s going on and get a plan in place.” Nate swung his backpack over his shoulder and headed for the airline counter. He could have sworn he saw Heather’s expression fall when she saw him in the queue again. Luckily they didn’t have to wait long before they reached the counter. Judging from the slumped shoulders of the people who had been in front of them, it wasn’t going to be good news. Nevertheless, Nate plastered on a smile.

“Any updates on the flight?” he asked.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Dunn.” Heather addressed him by name—no surprise she remembered him, given his earlier behavior. She nodded at Rusty. “Mr. Beaumont.” Heather would have remembered his name for a completely different reason. “The fog isn’t clearing, and even if it does, we’re so backed up on flights at a very busy time of year that I can’t reschedule your flight until the morning. And that’s if the fog clears. I’d suggest you phone in the morning before eight. Hopefully we should have more information then.”

“Thanks,” Nate said. He leaned in closer and lowered his voice. “I’m really sorry about earlier. I was having a bad day, and I shouldn’t have taken it out on you.”

“Thank you for the apology,” Heather said. “I appreciate it. We get a lot of stressed people on days like this and not very many of them think to apologize for their behavior.”

“Thanks for the update, ma’am,” Rusty said. “We’ll get out of your way now.” He indicated the growing queue behind them.

“Thanks again,” Nate said, hoping he wasn’t groveling too much. He led Rusty toward the exit, then stopped. “Do you have luggage to pick up?”

“I travel light.” Rusty pointed to his backpack and carry-on. “Force of habit. You?”

“Ditto,” Nate said. “I’m parked at the far end. Still interested in that coffee?”

“Yeah, thanks. Sounds great.” Rusty smiled. “I might take some to go too so I have something for tonight. It’s going to be a long one.”

Nate bit his lip. He really didn’t like the thought of Rusty spending the night at the airport. He’d done that once before when he’d been stuck in Oamaru, and had felt like crap for at least a day afterward. “Actually,” he said, the words out of his mouth before he realized what he was saying, “change of plan.”

Rusty raised an eyebrow. He looked puzzled. “Not going for coffee?”

“Yeah, but….” What the hell was he doing? Nate never did spontaneous stuff like this. He always planned ahead and then double-checked his plan before he took any course of action. Well, this time I’m doing something different. “It seems silly to have you spend a really uncomfortable night here—and believe me, it will be—when I have a perfectly good couch at my place.”

He was sure Amy wouldn’t mind. She’d take one look at Rusty and realize why Nate couldn’t leave the guy at the airport. Oh crap. She probably would take one look at Rusty and tease the shit out of both of them. Nate would have to make it perfectly clear this was just helping out a guy in need and nothing more. After all, Rusty would be out of here as soon as the airport got its shit together, right?

“You’re offering me your couch?” Rusty stared at Nate. “But you don’t know me. I could be an axe murderer or something.”

“Nah.” Nate shrugged. “I’m a good judge of character, and you’re no axe murderer. Consider it Kiwi hospitality. We do that kind of thing around here.”

“Thank you.” Rusty’s smile broadened. Nate decided he loved that smile already. It was the right combination of hot and sweet. “At least let me buy the coffee.”

“No need,” Nate said. “That’s the other thing about going to mine. I have a great coffee machine. Not only that, but there’s a decent take-out place on the way. Several of them, actually.”

Rusty smiled. “Let’s go, then. Decent food sounds great right about now.”