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The steady mechanical chant of the escalators echoed in the cavernous loft, peacefully separated from the hustle and bustle on the other side of the automatic doors. Endless shades of glossy grey soothed my weary eyes as I ascended, leaning heavily against the climbing handrail. I still had ten hours to go on my epic journey home, but at least the comfortable chairs and complimentary alcohol of the premium lounge offered merciful respite for nearly four of them.

Half a dozen steps up ahead, the pretentious chatter of Corporate Barbie and her Ken doll grated more than it should. Fatigue and the last of my patience was no match for the thoughtful nods and pursed lips that accompanied the fruitless preparation of their impending business trip. I couldn’t help but role my eyes. These over-educated twenty-somethings were all the same.

From what I could make out from the curve of her skirt, however, , the young brunette did seem to have a nice ass. I wasn’t quite old enough to be her father, but still too old. I sniffed the smirk off my face as I fished my boarding pass and membership card from my breast pocket.

When we reached the top, the go-getters strode off the escalator ahead of me and clopped off to the right. They waved their credentials at the reception staff in a well-practiced gesture, gaining unfettered entry through the frosted glass doors. I followed close behind, mimicking the manoeuvre and hoping for a similar result.

“Excuse me, Sir,” a curt female voice challenged from behind the black desk. “Can I please see your boarding pass?”

I threw my head back with a groan, exasperated. I should have known I was never going to make it. My short-sleeve, check shirt and black cargo pants didn’t fit in with the sleek corporate uniforms of my fellow high flyers. To say nothing of my white cane.

I started towards the desk, but quickly became entangled in the rope line marking out a small queuing area. Black nylon ribbon strung from black pedestals on a black floor: I had no chance of seeing it. But truth be told, I hadn’t fared any better with the black barriers against the white floors downstairs at check-in. At least I didn’t knock any over this time.

The fierce independence that had led me to rebuff an escort up to the lounge only minutes earlier evaporated with the last of my pride. Defeated, I stood rooted to the spot. My shoulders slumped with a sigh, and I slowly closed my eyes in surrender.

An urgent clip of heels on the shiny floor trotted out from behind the desk. “Here, let me help you.” The voice was huskier than the first, and much younger.

I handed over my documents with a tired smile. She slipped them from my left hand and gently guided me a couple of steps away from the barrier. As she took a second to review my details, I couldn’t help but notice the delicate scent of her perfume. It was intoxicating.

“Mr Hawke, you’re travelling with us on Five-Seven-Seven to Perth?” she half croaked.

“Yeah, at twelve-fifty.” I held my watch up to my nose, still not believing it had only just gone eight o’clock.

“Is there anything I can do to assist you while you’re here?” she offered.

I hesitated a moment before answering, “Actually, yeah, thanks. I haven’t been here before. If you could show me around a bit, that would be great.”

“Of course I can,” she beamed, swivelling in beside me to face the entrance. “Would you like to take my arm, Mr Hawke?”

I didn’t need to of course, but I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to grab hold of this lovely young woman. “Oh, thank you,” I smiled, tentatively taking her proffered elbow. I was immediately struck with the tactile sensation of her smooth skin, and the slender muscle tone of her arm. “And please, call me Will.”

“Okay, Will,” she giggled as we set off through the frosted glass doors. “My name’s Anna.”

“Lovely to meet you, Anna,” I gushed, making an extra effort to swing my cane so that I looked the part. Any excuse to keep a hold of her.

I was sure Anna noticed my less than honourable attention. Her bold red lipstick betrayed her smile, but she otherwise didn’t respond as she led me through.

The shiny, dark floor continued into the lounge proper, with countless settings of low, black couches. A sparse scattering of business suits squeaked in their leather seats as they furrowed their brows at their Financial Reviews on our way past. Others up ahead, silhouetted by the floor to ceiling windows, fussed about clinking crockery and operating percolating machinery at the self-serve coffee bar off to the right.

“Um…” Anna struggled to find the words, “Do you mind if I ask how much you can see? Ah, I mean, you’re partially sighted, right?”

“Yeah,” I smiled warmly back at her. People were often awkward when asking me about my disability, so I always made the effort to put them at ease. “I can see a bit, mainly just shapes and bright colours. You know, high contrast?”

“Uh-huh,” she breathed, genuinely interested.

“All this dark furniture on a dark floor…” web tasarım I cocked my head back at the leather couches. “It’s really hard to see. But up close though, I can make out a lot more detail.”

“So, can you see me?” She stopped as we came to a junction where the black leather area opened out onto an enormous space that seemed to run the full length of the terminal.

Keeping my attention on her, rather than the impressive architecture, I let go of her elbow. It suddenly dawned on me that I was only ever asked that question by younger women. I was too tired at that moment to figure out what it actually meant, and just answered, “Yeah. I can tell you have short blonde hair, and you’re wearing a white top…” My eyes scanned down her nicely curved body. “And a navy blue skirt. Although, it might be dark grey…”

“No, you were right,” she jumped in, with a smile in her slightly cracking voice. “My skirt’s French navy.”

“Hmmm.” I looked up at her face to see her carefully studying me, and continued, “And you’ve got a pink scarf.”

“Actually it’s fuchsia,” she teased.

“Yeah, I’m a guy,” I scoffed. “There’s no such thing as fuchsia. There’s just pink.”

Anna laughed and playfully touched my forearm. “You’re terrible.”

I narrowed my eyes at her and leaned in closer, only too happy to continue flirting. I caught the smell of her perfume again, together with her lightly minted breath. “I can see that your eyes are blue.” I paused a moment, letting my words hang in the sweetly-scented air. Then I figured I might as well go for it. “And I can see you have a very pretty smile.”

She held my gaze, tilting her head to the side. It was a definite what-the-fuck expression, complete with a raised eyebrow. But her smile was still there. If anything, it was a little broader than before.

“Too much?” I grinned, trying to raise an eyebrow of my own to mask my niggling embarrassment.

“Come on, you,” she laughed. Anna grabbed my left hand with hers, guiding it to her right arm, just above the elbow. We set off with a lot more confident purpose than before, Anna obviously seeing through my helpless-blind-guy routine. Still, she let me hold onto her, so it wasn’t a complete loss.

Anna cleared her throat intermittently over the next few minutes as she explained the features in the main area of the lounge, pointing out the various amenities. “I’m so sorry about my voice,” she coughed. “I went to the Coldplay concert last night with some girlfriends. We got a little carried away singing along with the band.”

“Really? Coldplay?” I chuckled incredulously as we came to a standstill on the red, patterned carpet by the windows. “I didn’t figure them for the scream-yourself-hoarse kind of group.”

“Hey, they were awesome!” She was cheerfully indignant. “It was such a good show. Kylie Minogue came out for the encore and sang a few songs with them and everything.”

“That’s pretty cool,” I offered. “But still, Coldplay?”

Anna looked away briefly, then tilted her head and sheepishly admitted, “We might have gone out clubbing a bit after the concert.”

“There we go,” I laughed, “And on a school night no less. Way to go, Anna.”

“You only live once, right?” Anna giggled. She leaned in, briefly pressing her shoulder and hip against me before offering her elbow once more.

We strolled down the length of the lounge, passing a couple of staff busily stacking glasses behind the bar. The bar that didn’t open until one o’clock, a good half hour after I had to head down to my plane. Any notion of me drinking my body weight in complimentary booze was dashed with an evil, albeit sexy laugh.

“Gee, I thought I was bad,” she teased with another giggle. “It’s eight-thirty in the morning, Will.”

“Hey, I’ve been up for over thirty-five hours now,” I whined, instantly becoming aware of the scratchiness of my eyes. “It’s still Wednesday night as far as I’m concerned.” Although it was apparently Friday morning.

“Oh, you poor thing,” she cooed. “Where did you fly in from?”

“New York.” I looked over at the buffet. Judging by the smell of toast and yoghurt, it was still set up for a continental breakfast. It was the last thing they had force-fed us on board, and the last thing I felt like eating.

“You didn’t get any sleep on the aircraft?” Anna asked with genuine concern.

I shook my head, still distracted by the sharp-elbows crowd shovelling in as much free breakfast as they could get their hands on. I had hit the wall all of a sudden. “Huh? I’m sorry, Anna. What did you say?”

Anna gave me a soft smile, complete with a husky, little hum. She asked me again about my flight, and I explained how I hadn’t been able to get any sleep on the plane. The Chatty Cathy I had been seated next to hadn’t stopped to take a breath since we left New York. And to add insult to injury, there was some sort of security scare in Los Angeles during our stopover, and I couldn’t get off to escape her.

“And when she did finally fall asleep,” I continued, rolling web tasarım ankara my eyes, “She started snoring her head off. It was like sitting next to a wood chipper the entire way across the Pacific.”

Anna laughed so hard, she actually snorted. She immediately threw her hand over her mouth in embarrassment as I guffawed loudly. “Oh my God, I can’t believe I did that!” Barely composing herself, Anna smacked my upper arm. “Shut up, you!”

We shared a moment of sparkling eye contact, before my failing eyes were drawn to the bold contrast of her red lips smiling away from a perfect set of teeth. I gently gripped the smooth skin of Anna’s arm and she tucked it into her side, allowing me a fleeting touch of the taper of her waist with the back of my hand. Whether it was chemistry or fatigue, I wasn’t quite sure. Either way, I caught myself becoming enamoured with her as we pressed on with the tour of the lounge.

The worn plastic ball on the end of my cane scraped against the hard floor as we walked on past the service counter. Anna suggested that I should check to see if I could get on the earlier flight home to Perth and maybe save myself a couple of hours waiting in the lounge. When I explained that there weren’t any business class seats on the earlier flight, she offered to check the availability in economy.

“Fuck that!” I spat, causing Anna to laugh at my irreverence. Then pressing my lips together thoughtfully, I admitted, “Besides, I already asked downstairs at check-in. Economy’s full too.”

“Oh, that’s too bad. But at least you get to spend some more time here with us.”

“Yeah, I was thinking of pushing my flight back a day or two…” Then I finally registered the flirtyness of her tone. But my brain failed me, and all I could do was finish the sentence, or something approximating it. “Um…ahh…yeah, you know? Um…rest up in a hotel or something.”

“Well, if you decide to stay in Sydney a little longer, we can certainly help you with that,” Anna giggled knowingly as she led me farther on down to the end of the lounge. It was a sleek, Spartan bar area, gleaming with shiny, black surfaces and stainless steel. It was all but deserted by the swarm of morning business travellers. The only sound, save for the bonging flight announcements over the public address system, was the clop of Anna’s heels and the smooth scrape of my cane.

“Another closed bar,” I sighed. “Hmmm.”

She pressed into my side and looked up at me, giggling. “Yeah, but you can get a soft drink, or maybe some peanuts,” she teased.

I tried to scowl at her, but I couldn’t help but smile. “Peanuts, huh? Okay, if I can’t pound a few beers, maybe I can hose myself off instead. You guys have got showers here, right?”

“Uh-huh,” Anna breathed with an enthusiastic grin, tugging me back the way we had just come. “They’re down this way.” We set off towards the other end of the lounge, chatting as we went. “So what took you to New York?” cracked her voice, followed by another clearing of her throat.

“Management conference,” I answered robotically. Then remembering to turn on the charm, “I’m a leadership consultant.”

“Really?” She faltered slightly under my bemused grin. “You…um…you seem a lot more…casual than the corporate coaches we get through here.”

I snorted a laugh. Yeah, “I’m hardly going to suit up for a thirty-hour flight home. Besides, my whole thing’s about being true to yourself. You know, being genuine?” I looked down off my left shoulder to see Anna’s sandy blonde bob nodding as we strolled back past the service desk on our right. She hung on every word as I explained the ins and outs of my consultancy to her.

“I actually do a lot of women,” I continued, realising what I had said after the words came out. “Um…I mean, I’m popular with the ladies. Oh, Jesus!” I threw my head back.

The snicker Anna was trying to hold back finally burst out. “I bet,” she laughed.

I sighed, feeling my cheeks burn. “What I meant to say was that I have a lot of female clients.” I glanced back down at her and she wasn’t letting me off the hook, looking back up at me with a big shit-eating grin. “Yeah, that was Freudian, all right.”

There was a deliciously cheeky depth to her giggle, almost evil in fact. I loved it, but I had stomped way too far out onto the thin ice to keep going. We fell silent a moment, exchanging the odd sideways smile as we walked back passed the black leather entrance.

“It’s really interesting watching how people react to your cane,” she said after a while. “It’s like they don’t know what to do. And then they dive out of the way. It’s hilarious!”

“Yeah,” I laughed, only noticing other passengers walking past us at the last second. “I have a lot of fun with it sometimes. It’s great for getting through crowds. I really get away with murder with this thing.”

“I’ve noticed,” she giggled, bumping me with her hip as we passed another buffet and crossed onto some more red, patterned carpet.

“What?” I pleaded with feigned innocence, feeling the prickle of embarrassment spreading across my forehead

Anna led me into a narrow corridor, the echo of her heels on the dark tile filling the space. She guided me past a couple of cleaning trolleys parked up to the left, and pointed out which one of the many maroon doors on the right was the men’s toilets. After a brief exchange with one of the cleaners, she ushered me into an alcove, then through into a small shower room.

Peeling my backpack off my shoulders and dropping it onto the low timber bench, I leaned my cane against the white tiled wall in the corner. I turned to see Anna closing the door behind her. It clicked shut. Then I thought I heard a second click.

Did she just lock the door?

It took a while for my exhausted thoughts to lumber into position, but I soon became conscious of my heart beating in my chest. I stared at her, trying to read the expression on her face. However, the warm yellow glow of the too-few halogen downlights in the small room wasn’t bright enough for me to get a read. As she stepped closer though, I could have sworn I saw her lips curling up in the beginnings of a wicked grin.

“Let me show you the shower,” she breathed, brushing against me and swinging open the clear glass door.

Anna took my right hand in hers. There was a familiar comfort in her touch, and while her fingers were cold, her warmth was electric. She was unnecessarily close, her shoulder against my chest and her ass against my groin. Reaching into the shower cubicle, she placed my hand on the taps, telling me which one was which, before moving my hand over to the toiletries on the adjacent wall.

There was no time to lose myself in the sweet strawberry scent of her hair as she swivelled away to show me the rest of the space. Anna petted a neatly folded pile of fluffy, white towels on her way over to a long maroon counter. The lights above the mirror were a lot brighter than in the rest of the room, illuminating her blonde bob and white shirt as she explained the few other notable trinkets on the vanity. Finally, with the tour complete, she leaned back against the sink and held her forearm across her stomach.

“Thanks,” I smiled, taking a seat on the timber bench. She silently smiled back, or so I thought from the tell-tale flash of her teeth. I held her gaze a moment, then bent down to untie my hiking boots. Wrestling my feet free and peeling off my socks, I was overcome with a comfortable relief. Balling and flexing my toes, I couldn’t help but sigh.

“I bet that feels good,” Anna soothed, almost laughing.

“Oh, you have no idea,” I hummed, eliciting another giggle. When I opened my eyes, she was still just standing there, tapping her hip with my boarding pass.

What the hell is going on here?

My heart rate quickened. The rising tension mixed with my fatigue only served to fuel my confusion. I had stumbled ass-backwards into women throwing themselves at me before, albeit infrequently. But truth be told, I was wrong more often than I was right. She could just be overly helpful. Airline training was notoriously patronising towards people with disabilities after all.

But the possibility…

I stood up, hoping to force a reaction from her either way. All I noticed though, was her head tilting up to keep her gaze on me. I stared back, the silence deafening, and growing worse by the second. I was close enough to see Anna cock her head slightly, her lips twisting in a crooked, little smile. But still, there was nothing, except the rhythmic slap of my boarding pass against her hip.

Anna held her ground, confidently looking into my eyes. She made no move. She offered no hint.

With the pulse in my ears finally matching the slap of my boarding pass, I was losing my nerve. It was all I could do to hold my tongue and not say anything stupid. I had pissed away more than a few golden opportunities in the past with my dry wit. Not this time if I could help it. With all the courage I could muster, I began unbuttoning my shirt.

Anna’s lips parted slightly with an audible intake of breath. Her blue eyes darted down to my fingers, then back up to my own hazel eyes. If her expression changed, it was too subtle for me to see it. But as I reached the last button, I noticed that my boarding pass had stilled.

Barely managing to keep a straight face, I shrugged off my check shirt and dropped it in a heap on the bench. I turned back to Anna to see that she, too, was struggling to keep her smirk under control. When her eyes lowered to continue her inspection of my torso, I sucked in my belly.

Anna huffed a laugh, mercifully breaking the tension. “You’re such a dag!”

“Dag?” I laughed back. “I haven’t heard that in a while. Aren’t the kids saying noob now? I read that newspaper article.”

“Cool story, bro,” she teased with a giggle. Then thickening the air with tension, Anna bit her bottom lip as she once again cast her eyes across my bare chest.

I hooked my thumbs into the elastic waist of my black cargo pants, making sure I had my underpants along with them. But I hesitated. The uncertain anticipation was palpable. I doubted I actually had the brashness to take the next step. I felt myself begin to tremble.

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