Tempting the Player(6)

By: Kat Latham

The plane shivered as its nose sliced through the clouds, and Matt shivered too. Finally, it leveled off, and he forced himself to loosen his grip on the armrests. Takeoff was always the worst. Well, takeoff and turbulence. But so far, it wasn’t too—

Boom! The plane bounced—actually fucking bounced as if it had been dropped onto a trampoline. From his seat he saw the wing tip flap like a seagull’s in a hurricane. He clenched all his muscles to keep from spewing his anxiety—and coronation chicken—across the seat back in front of him. The metallic tang of blood burst across his tongue as he bit down hard, trapping the futile prayers behind his teeth so none of the men around him would hear him beg.

“Gentlemen, the captain hasn’t turned off the Fasten Seat Belt sign. Please remain in your seats...”

Yeah, no problem. He lurched for the pocket sewn into the seat in front of him, desperately searching for the airsick bag but coming up empty. Of all the flights to be sober on...

The back of a hand slapped Matt across the chest. Took him a second to realize Hardy had reached across the aisle with an empty paper bag. “Here. Have mine.”

“Cheers,” Matt mumbled, but Hardy wasn’t listening. He sat with his head tipped back, earbuds in, body completely at ease. Matt couldn’t do that even when he self-medicated.

The plane rolled, taking Matt’s stomach along for the ride until the plane righted itself again. Fumbling, he managed to get the bag open and ready, but his gut refused to release its chokehold. The floor shuddered beneath him. Terror squeezed the air from his lungs, and his gaze darted through the cabin. Where the fuck were the escape routes?

Firm fingers wrapped around his wrist, and Matt nearly leaped from his seat before he saw Daphne crouched next to him. She rested her free hand on his shoulder, giving it a reassuring pat. “It’s all right, Matt. Just a bit of turbulence.”

He shook his head, unable to squeeze words out of his tight throat.

“It is. I promise you.” She relaxed her grip on his wrist, and a vague realization hit the part of his brain that was still working. She’d been taking his pulse, the way she did whenever he took a hard knock to the head. Lifting his hands so the airsick bag was at his mouth, she said, “Close your eyes. Good lad. Now breathe into that a few times for me, nice and slow.”

As he did, her über-calm voice swept over the whirring and rattling of the plane. “All right, I want you to listen to me. Are you listening?”

He nodded.

“Good. I want you to picture something nice. Something or someone you love.”

“Find my happy place?”

He heard the grin in her voice as she answered. “Yeah, that. Find your happy place, somewhere that has no stress associated with it. Not the rugby pitch.”

Obviously not. But if not the pitch—

He furrowed his brow. What else did he have?

“Got it?”

He nodded. She didn’t need to know he had nothing.

“Who’s there with you?”

Damn it. He hadn’t expected a pop quiz. He dug through his brain, searching for someone who made him happy until he found her. Blond hair. Sharp-toothed grin. Long, soft tongue. “Princess.”

Dr. D was quiet a moment. “A specific princess, or will any princess do?”

“My dog. Princess.”

“Oh. Of course.” Her subtle shock came through loud and clear: You’re a six-foot-one, sixteen-stone rugby player...with a dog named Princess. How would she feel if he told her Princess was a teacup Chihuahua with a penchant for sweater vests?

“Right. And what are you and Princess doing?”

Walking through the hills, Princess prancing around his feet—no need for a lead, since he could easily outrun her—and Libby right next to him, elbowing him in the ribs because he’d just ripped the piss out of her.

Ah, Libby. His cute friend had infiltrated his dreams some time ago. Now she was turning up in his happy place?

You’ve got it bad, mate.

“Matt? Tell me what you’re doing.”

“Looking for a picnic spot.” He recognized the place now. Last year, he and Libby had spent a day hiking through the Chilterns west of London. They hadn’t got Princess yet, though. So here he was, trying to pretend he wasn’t trapped inside a metal coffin hurtling toward a fiery death at a bazillion miles per hour, and his mind was conjuring up his bizarre pseudo-family. Not wanting to dip too deeply into his own psychology, he focused on Libby’s laughing face. She was always laughing—mostly at him, it seemed. Funny, that. Odd funny, not amusing funny. Whenever she acted as his plus-one, she smiled at other people’s jokes, maybe even let out a huff of amusement, but her bursts of laughter seemed reserved for him.

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