Becca Evans hated flying. It wasn’t that she was scared to fly—okay, maybe she was, but she’d never admit it. She simply knew too much, and that made her nervous. Was her fear based on the fact that the airplane she and her sister were about to board weighed approximately one hundred forty thousand pounds and, somehow, all of that aluminum and composite metal would be cruising at approximately three hundred seventy miles per hour at thirty-five thousand feet up in the air?
Becca understood the laws of aerodynamics. How speed and wing shape enabled an airplane to overcome friction so that all that weight could lift off the ground and remain aloft. What bothered her was that this particular airplane, the Boeing 737, had by far the worst record for fatal crashes. In fact, fifteen times more fatal incidences than the other airliners of its size.
Oh, and turbulence freaked her out. It made her feel out of control, and Becca liked—no, needed—to be in control.
If not for her sister, Grace, being a contestant in the Miss Temptation Pageant at the Playground of Paradise Bay Resort, Becca would not be flying. No, sir. But, this was the pageant to end all pageants, a mash-up between Miss America, The Bachelor, and Survivor, and the whole shebang was going to be streamed live.
It was going to be Grace’s big break, and Becca needed her to win.
“Are you okay?” Grace touched her shoulder, a worry wrinkle marring the perfection of her forehead.
“Fine.” Becca forced a smile. “Why?”
“You’re doing that thing you do when you’re thinking too hard.”
“Your lips are moving.”
Becca was about to deny it when a bored voice came over the PA system. “Zone one passengers may begin boarding. Please have your boarding pass and government-issued identification ready to show the attendants.”
“That’s us,” Becca said over her shoulder to her sister. She’d only taken two steps when—BAM!—she ran into a brick wall of flesh and bone.
“Oomph!” Becca stumbled back.
“Watch where you’re going.” A tall, well-dressed, and more noticeably, extremely solid man frowned at her before making his way to the priority line at the gate, allowing him to board ahead of everyone else.
“Oh my God!” Grace whisper-squealed. “That was him!”
“Calum Price!” She pulled out the magazine she’d been carrying around the airport and stroked a manicured nail down the cover, which Mr. Price was gracing, wearing an expensive Italian suit and an enigmatic smile. The headline read “Youngest Billionaire, Most Eligible Bachelor.” “He’s even hotter in person,” she gushed. “I can’t believe he’s the judge for the contest. And the prize.”
An all-expenses paid trip to Paris with the billionaire Calum Price was part of the prize for winning the contest, but he was certainly not the reason Becca wanted Grace to win. The one-hundred-thousand-dollar cash prize was more like it, as well as the side benefits of being a contestant in such a big production.
Becca tugged Grace toward the lengthening lineup for non-priority passengers. “Stay focused,” Becca said. “Remember why we’re doing this.”
“I know, I know. It’s the prize money and exposure.” The sisters inched forward in line before Grace spoke again. “But, Bec?”
“Do you really think I can win?”
There was apprehension in her sister’s tone, something very unusual for Grace. “In twelve years of pageants, have we ever lost?”
Grace pressed her lips together before smiling. “No.”
“Exactly. We are unbeatable, together. And this contest is no different. The stakes are higher, but we will rise to the challenge.” She nudged her sister and grinned. “Together.”
“If I win…” Grace turned to face Becca. “What if I get some kind of contract? What if I need to move to L.A.?”
“Then you move.”
“But what about you?”
Becca took a deep breath. This was the perfect time to tell her sister that she’d be moving as well, but not to L.A. To New York City…
“Why don’t you come to L.A. with me?” Grace said, a flush of excitement making her eyes glow. “You know I can’t do this without you.”
The brief window of opportunity to tell her sister about her fellowship to Cornell University slammed shut.
“We’ll worry about that when it happens.”
Grace fidgeted and then unrolled the magazine she still had clutched in one hand. She straightened it out to study the man on the cover. “What if Calum Price actually falls in love with me?”
Becca glanced sideways at her sister, who was now smiling dreamily, probably imagining romantic scenarios with her and the rude billionaire bachelor. Ugh! The guy hadn’t even apologized for bumping into her. No wonder he was still single.
“Next.” The gate attendant held out his hand for their tickets. “Are you two traveling together?”
“Yes,” Grace sang the word as if she were Judy Garland—one of Grace’s many favorite actresses. “We’re sisters.”
The man took their tickets and IDs and glanced at them. Frowned. Checked their IDs again and did a double take, giving Grace a once-, then twice-over before casting a bewildered look at Becca. She knew exactly what was coming.
Yep. There it was. Disbelief. It happened all the time because they looked nothing alike. Where Grace was blond, curvy, and gorgeous like an old-school Hollywood movie star, Becca was…plain. Brown hair. Hazel eyes. Slim figure. Their only similarity was their height, though Grace always appeared taller because she wore heels.
“Sisters and best friends,” Grace announced proudly, linking their arms together.
Neither of those things were completely true. They were half sisters, which explained the difference in appearance. As for being best friends? It was more like they were inseparable. Even now, they shared an apartment, and Becca had been by Grace’s side in every pageant she’d entered in the last twelve years. But, it was more of a protector/protect-ee situation. Becca had been taking care of her older sister since they were kids. First, it was defending her from bullies—Becca had been small but wiry as a kid—and then, once Grace started dating, the bullies became boyfriends. Becca had taken it upon herself to systematically dispose of every single one. It was never hard. Hacking their computers was child’s play. Finding dirt and threatening them had become one of her favorite pastimes.
Come September, for the first time in their lives, Becca wouldn’t be around to take care of her sister. After finishing her grad degree in astrophysics at the University of Wisconsin, she’d been offered a research position in the Physics Department at Cornell. Even though it was her dream position, doing research in the fields of astrophysics, general relativity and cosmology, Becca worried about her sister, because Grace had never been on her own before.
That was why she needed Grace to win the contest. So she’d have something more than pageants, maybe an acting or modeling career. Who knew what opportunities could come from this contest?
Once they found their seats in economy, Grace insisted she sit in the aisle seat (small bladder and all that) which left Becca stuck in the middle. A sense of impending doom stole through her, heating the pit of her belly while conversely casting a cool sheen over her skin, making her forget all about New York and instead, reminding her of the 3,657 people who’d died aboard Boeing 737s in the last decade.
Grace covered her hand. “It’s going to be okay.”
“Here.” Grace passed the magazine to her and opened it to an article on sex. “You could benefit from this.”
“You know, so you’ll think about something other than flying.” She shrugged. “Plus, you might learn some important information from this article.” She pointed to the title, “10 Health Benefits to an Active Sex Life.” “How long’s it been, anyway?”
“How long has what been?”
“Since you’ve had sex.”
“Seriously?” Becca glanced around to see how many people had overheard.
Her sister tapped her chin, not giving a damn about anyone around them. “Was it Jerry?”
Becca put an angry finger to her lips. “Quiet.”
“And that was, what? A year ago?”
Banging her head against the seat, Becca replied, “I don’t need a boyfriend to be happy. I’m perfectly happy as I am.”
“Are you?” Her sister gazed intently at her.
“Yes, of course I am.”
Full lips twisted to one side. “It’s just you’ve been acting kind of funny lately.”
“It’s nothing,” Becca lied. “Really.”
“Well, something has you wound up.” She pointed back to the article. “And there’s nothing better than a little sexy-time to relax you.” A secret smile touched the corners of Grace’s lips as if she was remembering her last interlude.
Becca bristled. “You’re not secretly seeing Brad, are you?” Brad was Grace’s latest loser.
“No. Of course not,” Grace replied too quickly.
Dammit. Brad was one of the reasons Becca had been forced to intervene in Grace’s life. He was controlling, manipulative, and possessive. It didn’t help that her sister was a serial dater and a borderline nympho.
Sex was her favorite topic and favorite pastime.
Grace was also naive, which was a lethal combination, making her a magnet for misogynists.
“I wonder if Calum Price likes sex.” Grace closed the magazine so she could gaze at the man on the cover. “He looks like he does.”
“Stop worrying about Calum Price—”
“Sex is good for your health,” Grace declared, as if she hadn’t just browsed the article. “It’s good for the metabolism, the hair, the skin…”
“Can we please stop talking about sex?” Becca whispered, not needing to be reminded of how long it had been since she’d had anything more than her imagination and a vibrator to put her to sleep at night.
“Oh, fine.” Grace sighed. “I have to go to the loo, anyway.” She dropped the magazine back into Becca’s lap before getting up and making her way to the rear of the plane past the last-minute stragglers.
Becca opened to the article on Calum Price. She’d already read it, but she needed to distract herself from the fact that the plane had almost boarded and would be taking off soon. Anything other than a conversation about how long it’d been since she’d gotten laid was her preference.
Even articles about rude playboys.
“Seat 44B? Ms. Evans?”
A flight attendant stood in the aisle, beaming down at her.
“You are the recipient of a free upgrade, courtesy of Playground of Paradise Bay Resort.”
“Please grab your bags and follow me.”
The woman didn’t give Becca a chance to explain that the seat was in her sister’s name and that it should be Grace who was seated in first class. She glanced toward the back of the plane where Grace had disappeared into the tiny cubicle.
“Please. This way. The aircraft is about to depart.”
On the other hand…
Alcohol was free in first class. A drink might calm her nerves, and lord only knew her nerves needed a little calming. Grabbing her things, Becca jostled her way to the front of the plane, feeling a sense of satisfaction when the curtain separating the two classes snapped closed behind her.
“Here’s your seat, Ms. Evans.”
Calum Price was seated in the chair next to the one she’d been assigned, his expression dismissive as he glanced at her.
She settled her carry-on into the overhead bin and then plopped down, tucking a book into the pocket in front of her and her purse beneath the seat. “Well, hello.”
He glanced at her but did not reply—ass—before catching a flight attendant as she was passing by. “What’s going on?” He indicated Becca with a nod of his head.
“Upgrade. It’s all part of the Playground of Paradise Bay experience, apparently.”
Before the attendant could leave, Becca reached across her seatmate and waved to the woman. “Two mimosas please.”
“I don’t want one,” Calum said.
“It’s not for you.”
He tilted his head at this comment and then pointed to a button on the armrest. “Press the button and they’ll walk the five steps required to serve you.”
“Fly first class a lot, do you?”
She was surprised.
“I take my own plane. But it’s not certified to land at the resort.” He shrugged. “So, first class it is.”
Unfolding the little table for Calum, the flight attendant set down a cloth napkin, a glass with amber liquid, and a side of sliced pear.
“Scotch?” Becca whispered as she leaned close to sniff his glass, making sure she was calling a spade a spade. Now that she was here, she realized it was the perfect opportunity to determine whether billionaire Calum Price was a decent human being or whether he was just another wealthy, arrogant ass. So far, he was proving to be the latter. “Hmm, a little early for Scotch, isn’t it?”
He turned to her, his face emotionless, apart from a single arched brow. “Says the woman who ordered two glasses of champagne.”
The mimosas were served in real crystal champagne flutes. Very nice. Becca took a sip. Delicious. She could get used to this.
Maybe this flight wouldn’t be so bad, after all.
She glanced sideways at the most eligible bachelor in the world. Who was he, really?
Sure, the guy was good looking. Okay, he was very good looking. Thick dark hair, dark brows framing dark eyes. His lips were nice: full but still masculine. Broad forehead, straight nose, and a jaw that was covered in that stylishly trimmed short beard that most women went gaga over, but which she hated. Was it a beard? Was it stubble? It seemed tragically caught somewhere in between and screamed high maintenance to her.
Her gaze slid lower. There was a breadth to his physique and a masculinity to his hands that spoke of athleticism. He could have been a hockey player, except he was too put together. Probably spent oodles of time in front of the mirror. Primping.
He slowly swiveled to face her, his expression cold. Becca was undeterred. She had a new mission, to learn everything she could about him in the next six hours. The secondary purpose of her mission—though equally important—was to distract herself from the fact that the plane was taking off.
“So,” Becca said. “I’m waiting.”
“For you to apologize for crashing into me.”