Margaret Ethridge, contemporary romance fan favorite and TMP top-selling author of Commitment.
I have been in love with Jack and Ellie, from Margaret Ethridge's Long Distance Love, when I read her first short story featuring the couple a few years back. A series of short stories later, and the novel Long Distance Love was born, telling the story of love "on the fly."
Long Distance Love—Sometimes the distance between two hearts can be measured in frequent flier miles. Love may be a many splendored thing, but it’s rarely convenient. Can FBI Agent Jack Rudolph and fiercely independent Ellie Nichols find a way to make a long distance relationship work?
An excerpt from Concourse Christmas:
How can something so beautiful be such a pain in the ass?
A torrent of fat flakes tumbled past soundproof glass. Ellie Nichols squinted, staring past her own reflection into the curtain of falling snow. An ever-thickening layer of white covered the tarmac and blanketed the hulking shape of the abandoned plane at the end of the Jetway.
She heaved a heavy sigh, her fingers tightening around her cell phone. The smooth plastic casing slid in her sweaty palm. Ellie dragged her gaze from the desolate scene, sneaking a quick glance out of the corner of her eye at the man seated across the crowded waiting area.
Creepy or cute?
She feigned interest in the television monitor mounted in the corner. The closed captioning scrolled across the bottom of the screen. A well-groomed man in a sharp suit waved a futile hand at the map, no doubt bemoaning his ineptitude in predicting the Canadian cold front that precipitated this Christmas Eve storm.
She huffed and turned back to the window. Another ten gazillion flakes drifted to the ground, each one unique, and each one seemingly hell bent on keeping her from reaching Chicago.
Ellie smirked. Yeah, it’s all about me.
She stole another peek at the guy down the row. His legs were crossed at the ankles. Scuffed brown shoes the size of small pleasure crafts anchored him to the floor. Mile-and-a-half-long legs encased in faded jeans stretched across the aisle. A cranberry colored Henley spanned broad shoulders, the pushed up sleeves revealing strong forearms crossed over a nicely muscled chest. Her gaze traveled a little higher. He was staring straight at her. Again.
Ellie met his stare head-on. She was rewarded with a pink flush that lit the tips of his ears and seeped into his cheeks.
She blinked and refocused her attention to the monitor just beyond the cute guy’s shoulder. Her phone vibrated, making her jump. She fumbled with the phone as a tinny version of Mariah Carey’s ‘All I want for Christmas Is You’ rang out.
“Hello?” She shook her head and glanced at the departure monitor again. “No, still delayed, Mom.”
Her mother launched into a bleak weather report from the Windy City. Ducking her head, Ellie gnawed her bottom lip as she battled back a wave of frustration and disappointment.
“Okay, well, nothing’s been canceled yet.” She hazarded another glance at the screen and clung to her last shred of hope. “I’ll keep you posted,” she promised before ending the call.
Ellie’s stomach growled. She checked the time, tucked the phone into her handbag, and stood, tugging the hem of her sweater over her hips.
The tiny hairs at the nape of her neck prickled. Ellie didn’t need to sneak another peek to know the guy was watching her when she reached for her carry-on bag. The handle snapped into place. Her fingers curled around smooth plastic and she mustered up a little bravado.
Like what you see, Mr. Talldarkandlackinginsocialskills?
She boldly met his eyes when she passed, and apparently he did like. The heat of his gaze followed her from the seating area. Ellie tossed her head as she waded into the milling crowd on the concourse, a pang of regret sharpening the hunger pangs needling her stomach. The haircut had been an impulse—a lark, a declaration of independence—but for the first time in two weeks she missed having a curtain of hair to hide behind.
Jack tensed when the young woman in the bright green sweater skirted his outstretched legs. He stared after her. He couldn’t stop staring at her, and staring at her was driving him crazy. He wanted to chalk his interest up to boredom, but he found cataloging her every movement and mannerism far too captivating to be bored.
The fascination baffled him. She wasn’t his type at all. He liked his women long-stemmed and light—both in appearance and in attitude. With her close-cropped cap of dark hair, clingy green sweater, and thick-fringed emerald stare, this girl looked more like a Christmas elf.
She’s no bigger than an elf.
He eyed the petite woman teetering down the concourse. His mouth watered. Without conscious thought, his knees bent. The soles of his shoes hit the floor and he stood. As if an invisible fishing line tugged at his belt buckle, he took off after her.
Way to take the bait, buddy. Hook, line, and sinker.
Tall leather boots with toothpick heels molded to shapely calves. He envied that soft, supple leather. An unbearable surge of jealousy washed through him when he noted the way the long, snug sweater cupped her delectable bottom. She weaved her way toward a stand of fast-food outlets and he followed, mesmerized by the gentle undulation of rounded hips.
She barely spared him a glance when he strolled into the food court. Instead, she studied the lighted menu above the sub sandwich counter with an intensity that made him smile. Jack slipped into the line extending from the miniature Burger King counter, hanging back just enough to be able to keep an eye on her.
She frowned. Her fingers fluttered through her hair.
She pulled her wallet from the bag and tucked her chin to her chest as she thumbed through its contents.
Oh, God, is that a birthmark behind her ear?
Until that moment, he’d never been a fan of short hair on a woman, but that tiny strawberry smudge behind her right ear changed his opinion irrevocably. As if sensing his stare, she glanced at him. He almost tripped over his own feet in his haste to turn away.
Good. Nice and smooth. She’ll be filing stalking charges within the hour.
Jack stared at the menu board, steadfastly refusing to risk another peek for a full two minutes. She stepped up to the counter and began to order. He moved to his left, straining to pick up the sound of her voice amidst the hubbub. He shifted a little more but had to jump back when the man ahead of him tried to run over Jack’s foot with a roller bag.
The woman at the counter looked at him expectantly. The teenager in line with him muttered, “You gonna order or what?”
He ordered his usual combo number by rote. Once his receipt was in hand, Jack carefully walked to the opposite side of the common beverage station, determined to put a half-dozen travelers and an island of carbonated syrup between them while he waited for his dinner.
Jack pretended not to notice when she claimed her sandwich. He told himself the click-click-click of heels and wheels on the tile floor could belong to anyone. He sternly reminded himself that there was nothing interesting about the tumble of ice cubes falling from the dispenser, and absolutely nothing sexy about the soft psssht the beverage fountain released.
Get a grip, Jackie. A grip. Boy, I’d like to get a grip. I’d unwrap that pretty little package….
“Dude, your food!” The lanky teenager nudged Jack’s arm with his bony elbow.
Jack grunted. “Dude, I’ve got it.” He surged forward to retrieve the bag and cup the counter attendant waved in his direction. Still muttering under his breath, he filled the cup with enough ice to sink the Titanic and chose the least caffeinated drink available in hopes of calming his jangled nerves.
He zigzagged his way through the lines of hungry passengers to the dining area strung along the edge of the concourse. Every table was taken. Only three chairs remained unclaimed, and one of them happened to be opposite his elf.
Jack closed his eyes and drew a deep breath. “Well, it’s no star in the East, but what can you do?” he muttered under his breath.
“Is this seat taken?”
Absorbed in the task of redistributing the mayonnaise on her sandwich with a plastic fork, Ellie jumped when she realized the question had been directed at her. She looked up and her eyes widened in surprise as she spotted Mr. Talldarkandnotsosmooth leaning close.
She reared back slightly, staring into the deepest, darkest bittersweet-chocolate-brown eyes she’d ever seen. Ellie groped for her voice and found it lodged somewhere in her throat. She swallowed hard then murmured, “That depends.”
Thick eyebrows rose. “On?”
“Are you going to keep staring at me while I’m trying to eat?”
A delicate pink rose high in his cheeks, contrasting with the coarse black stubble that shadowed his jaw. A wide, blindingly white smile revealed a devastating dimple.
“I can’t guarantee that I won’t.”
Ellie glanced down at the partially disassembled sandwich spread on the wrapper in front of her. She caught her bottom lip between her teeth and attempted a nonchalant shrug, pulling the wrapper a little closer to free up a few more inches of space.
“Well, you can tell me if I get mayonnaise on my chin.”
“I will. I promise.” He slid into the chair across from her, depositing his bag and cup and groaning as his laptop bag slithered to the ground at his feet. He nodded to the nearest gate area. “What a mess, huh?”
Ellie busied herself with the precise realignment of three anemic-looking tomato slices. “Yep.”
Mr. Talldarkanddimpled extracted a cardboard sandwich box and a giant container of fries from the bag. Ellie watched through lowered lashes as he tore into packet after packet of ketchup, pooling their contents on a raft of paper napkins.
“Where are you headed?” he asked.
She looked up, arching one challenging eyebrow. “Home for Christmas.”
He chuckled and shook his head. A self-deprecating smile made that dimple wink at her again. Mr. Talldarkcondimentabuser wiped his fingers on another napkin and extended his hand.
“I’m Jack Rudolph.”
Ellie eyed that large hand speculatively. His long fingers reached for her, his broad palm exposed and vulnerable. She glanced up and he twitched one eyebrow in silent challenge. She placed her hand in his. Those long, strong fingers closed around hers. He didn’t release her right away, so she fell back on the only weapon a vertically challenged woman has when faced with a formidable opponent and without a shield of hair to flip.
“Rudolph?” She blinked at him then fluttered her lashes. “Can I bribe you to guide my sleigh tonight?”
His deep, easy laugh rumbled through her. “Possibly,” he answered with a grin.
Ellie extracted her hand from his grasp. Her grandmother’s voice echoed in her head.
Good Lord, Eleanor, would it kill you to be a little friendly? You’re far too prickly for such a pretty girl. You’re thirty-two years old. Aren’t you ever going to get married?
Her ears burned. A rush of shame and humiliation raced through her veins. She fumbled with her sub sandwich, slapping both halves back together then flattening one with the palm of her hand.
“I’m sorry. I bet you got that a lot when you were a kid,” she murmured, sneaking a peek at him through her lashes.
A slow, wicked smile curved his lips. Her throat went dry but she’d swear her bones melted into a steaming pool of goo. His chuckle steamrolled whatever was left. “A few times, but I have to admit I’m tempted to try it for you.”
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