Enjoy a special romantic short story to celebrate Valentine’s Day from Mills & Boon author Ally Blake. Originally published in The Courier Mail on 09.02.2020.
Sloane O’Connor squinted against the bright Whitsundays sky, so unmitigatedly blue, as she watched the very small seaplane descend over the ocean.
Beneath her floppy sunhat her hair clung limply to her scalp and a bead of sweat followed the meandering trail down her spine left by those that had gone before. She could not have felt further from the rainy greys of the Irish winter she’d left behind.
Sloane’s breath hitched as the seaplane seemed to catch on a gust of wind, float a moment mid-air, before levelling and coasting towards the beach pick-up spot to which she’d been directed.
The charter pilot must have had an iron stomach, while she had to force her fingers to unclench from the handle of the tote in which she carried motion sickness bands, a towel, a water bottle, stinger repellent, crackers, and the strongest sunscreen known to man.
Sloane was nothing if not pragmatic. She was a bookkeeper, for Paddy’s sake.
“Then what on earth am I doing here?” she asked out loud.
Honouring her gran, that’s what. A woman who’d told anyone who’d listen she was holding on till her beloved granddaughter was on the path to true happiness.
Sloane had thought that meant gainful employment and an engagement to a perfectly nice man. Only at her gran’s funeral had it hit – she’d spent her life painting by numbers to create a picture of happiness. An illusion to keep her wonderful gran happy. Which her gran would have hated.
So here she was. About to take what the brochure promised to be a “romantic seaplane ride, dipping and soaring above the Whitsunday archipelago, a range of emerald-green islands scattered across a frothing turquoise sea, promising daring views of Heart Reef and an intimate touchdown on Whitehaven Beach”.
Not that she was feeling at all romantic, now that she and her perfectly nice ex had –very civilly in the end – agreed to part ways. But since her gran had bought the flight as her wedding present she’d had to come.
Just then the plane swept in low over the water, landing on the waves with a light splash.
As the plane neared, Sloane peered through the shine off the cockpit window and felt something shiver over her skin.
Not the chill she’d felt since her gran’s funeral. Or the cold feet she’d lived with for some time before that. More like long since dormant instincts, telling her to stay alert. To pay attention.
The guttural roar of the engine cut as it approached. The seaplane drifted the final few yards to the shore.
An anchor dropped into the water from the far side of the plane, creating a puff of sand, before a pair of tanned male legs leapt down onto the float, then into the sea.
Sloane found herself holding her breath as the pilot rounded the aircraft, her eyes not knowing where to land first. The strong limbs pushing through the water or the wet, navy shorts that fit just right. The curling dark hair or the flapping linen shirt; the top button undone to reveal a v of deep brown skin.
Big sunglasses covered half the man’s face, but not the hard, unshaven jaw beneath. Or the somewhat adorable smudge of white zinc across his chiselled nose.
Then he smiled; a flash of strong white teeth that had her forgetting her name.
“Hey,” he said, his Australianness clear in one simple word. “I’m with Whitehaven Wings. You’re waiting for me?”
She nodded. She had been. Quite possibly her entire life.
Shaking off the flash of fancy, Sloane gripped her sensible bag and said, “Yes, thank you.”
“Okay then. Are we still waiting on someone?” he asked, his voice as deep as the ocean.
“Let me check the booking.” The man slid a phone from the tight back pocket of his shorts. Even his thumb sliding over the screen was a thing of beauty. So much so the backs of her knees had begun to tingle.
Heat stroke. It had to be. Or maybe she’d been stung by something already! Australia was known for its array of deadly critters. For this – the swoony sensation, the skittish kerthumping of her heart – was so not like her.
She was a practical girl from Belfast. Unless that had been part of the illusion too?
“You’re the Murphy party, right?”
Sloane was tugged back to the present by that deep Australian drawl. Murphy was to have been her married name. This was…
“A change of plan. I’m the O’Connor party. That’s me. Sloane O’Connor.”
“Irish?” the pilot asked, with notes of deep warmth in his voice. “My grandfather was Irish.”
“Truly? My grandmother is Australian. Was Australian. She passed, just of late.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
The thing was, she believed him. “She’s why I’m here.”
“Well, there you go,” said the pilot, as if it decided something. Then a muscle twitched at the edge of his mouth. “So, I take it we’re not waiting for the other member of the party.”
“Just me. On my own. Single.” He gets the point! In fact, she could have sworn she saw his eyes twinkle, even behind the sunglasses. “What I mean is, no waiting necessary.”
“Glad to hear it.”
He smiled. And Sloane smiled back.
No waiting, she thought. Not anymore. She took a deep breath, her shoulders notching back an inch.
The pilot noticed too. She saw it in the slow breath that filled his lungs. The way he seemed to ground himself. Preparing for… That she didn’t yet know. But she felt a frisson of excitement at the prospect of finding out.
“It’s a bit of a long story, actually,” she managed.
The pilot’s response was a deep, rumbling, “They usually are.”
Then he took off his sunglasses.
It seemed to happen in slow motion. The lift of his brawny arm, sunlight glinting off a scar or two, then the reveal of the bluest eyes she’d ever seen. Eyes that made the waters behind him, and the sky above, seem as dull as the winter she’d left behind.
A grin creased the pilot’s face, followed by a rough burr of laughter. Had she said that out loud?
“Let’s get to it,” said the pilot, letting her off the hook. And holding out a hand. Strong, calloused. Waiting, for her. “Come on, Irish. You won’t regret it.”
She wasn’t hesitating. She was soaking it in. This feeling, this certainty that she wouldn’t regret whatever came next. Not one little bit.
Then she reached out and put her hand in his.