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Hard Fought (A Stepbrother Warriors Novel)

By:Celia Loren

Hard Fought (A Stepbrother Warriors Novel)

By Celia Loren

Chapter One

Paris, France

"Ms. Stratton? We're boarding now," the first class lounge attendant murmurs sweetly above me. Like all the Air France employees, she speaks perfect English.

"Mmph, thanks," I manage to say around the cotton ball feeling in my mouth. I push my sunglasses back up on the bridge of my nose. I'm nursing a wicked hangover and just want to get on the airplane with a sleep mask over my eyes.

I grab my carry-on bag and walk out of the lounge toward the gate, wondering when they started making airports so fucking bright. It's like a lab in here, all glaring white surfaces made specifically to reflect the sun back into my face. I rub my temples with my free hand as I walk up to the short line of first class passengers already gathering with their tickets in hand. I rummage through my bag for mine as raised voices from the airline counter float over.

"I specifically went online early to reserve the emergency exit aisle seat. Specifically, do you understand that word?" a middle-aged American man spits out at the young woman behind the counter.

"Yes, sir," she replies, her voice quavering a bit. "I was just asking if you would be willing to switch to the window because there is an injured American veteran on the flight, and I thought it might help his leg if he could stretch—"

"I just don't understand for the life of me how that became my fucking problem, OK? Maybe you should—"

"Excuse me?" I loudly interrupt him as I walk up behind him to the counter. He turns around to see who would dare do such a thing, and I get a glimpse of his flushed, angry cheeks, and spittle caught in the corners of his mouth. "Are there any first class seats left?" I ask the attendant with a sweet smile.

"Ah, yes—"

"We're in the middle of something!" the man sputters at me. I ignore him.

"Great. This injured veteran you mentioned, I'd like to buy him an upgrade please," I say, whipping my Black Amex card out of my wallet and handing it across the counter.

"Really?" the attendant asks, looking delighted and relieved.

"Really," I say, then turn to the man. "To thank him for his service." The man turns away in a huff, but at least he doesn't make any more of a scene. "There's not any way to pay for a downgrade for his seat, is there?" I ask with a wry smile.

She laughs. "I wish you could, believe me. Alexa Stratton, what a pretty name," she adds with a grin. "Thank you for doing that. I was just warned about giving away too many free upgrades, and I thought maybe another American would help the man. I felt sorry for him…he's got a big cast on and everything. And…" she starts to blush.

"What?" I ask, raising my eyebrows. She nods toward the waiting area. I let my eyes skim over the crowd, looking for what could have caused this reaction in her.

My gaze lands on a tall, broad-shouldered man with his leg, in a cast, stuck out at an awkward angle. Even with a full beard, his dark eyes and high cheekbones are apparent from thirty feet away.

"So this extra first class seat," I murmur, turning back to the counter with a grin, "any possibility you could make it next to mine?"

"I think I could arrange that," she says, typing on her keyboard. "There we go. You have an enjoyable flight, Ms. Stratton," she adds, her eyes glittering wickedly.

"I'll do my very best," I promise her with a smile. At the gate, the ticketing agent switches his mic on.

"First class passengers, passengers with disabilities, and those with young children, you may now board Flight 131, direct to Tampa International." I line up and see the injured vet slowly stand up out of the corner of my eye, no doubt answering the announcement for passengers with disabilities. Well, he'll find out soon that his seat has been changed.

I walk briskly down the jetway and onto the plane, then turn left into the first class seating, kept completely separate from economy on these huge 777s. Dropping into my seat, I pull off my sunglasses and fish my emergency concealer out of my purse. I swipe some under my eyes, doing my best to hide my tired bags, and then run my fingers through my hair. A flute of champagne appears on a silver tray next to me and I look up to the flight attendant.

"Oh, merci, but could I actually have a glass of orange juice...Luc?" I ask, spotting his name tag. He nods and smiles, then turning away and delivering the champagne to a businesswoman two rows in front of me.

I stare out the window, watching our bags being loaded into the plane. I promised myself that starting today, I'd swear off two things: men and drinking. So far, not doing great on the men aspect, but I did pass on the champagne. I think the problem is that while I went out last night with my Parisian friends for one final night of sin and really tied one on, I did not manage to meet a man to take home. Probably because my friends kept choosing gay clubs. So while I have drinking out of my system, I'm still feeling that itch that only a man can scratch. Just one more fling, that would do it, really!