“Y’know you’re acting weird, right?” Eli muttered, peering over the seat in front of him at the line of people still waiting to board the flight.
Beside him, Zoey hunched over and adjusted the oversized sunshades over her face. “No, I’m not,” she whispered.
Eli arched a brow. She’d insisted on her old baggy hoodie and jeans for comfort and he could give her that since he opted for cargo shorts and his favorite Bowser t-shirt, but the sunglasses made little sense. “What’s going on, Zo—”
He frowned. “You a spy or something?”
“Or something. Shh.” She ducked her head and pulled the hoodie around her head as a passenger stopped beside them.
Eli turned to the heavy-set man glaring at them and raised a questioning brow.
“That’s my seat.”
Eli blinked at the man’s reproachful tone and offending hand near his face. “Which one?”
The man’s upper lip curled in a snarl. “You can’t read? That’s my seat.”
“I said which—” Zoey elbowed his side, reminding him of the vow to remain composed throughout their trip. Eli drew in a calming breath. “Please check again, Sir.”
“Are you deaf? I said that’s my seat!”
Behind him, the other passengers grew impatient. Some scowled at the irate man while some glared at Eli. Another passenger drew a long hiss and shoved past, causing the obstinate man to stumble over his oversized bag and into Eli’s legs. Instead of apologizing, the portly man cursed loud and shoved at Eli’s legs. The passengers grumbled over the inconvenience.
Eli started to rise when Zoey clamped a death grip on his arm. He turned his scowl on her.
Zoey shook her head, refusing to let go.
“What’s going on?” someone bellowed above the chaos. A flight attendant made her way down the other aisle, concern etched in her face. “What seems to be the problem?”
“The problem is this oyinbo in my seat,” the irate man snapped, a harsh contrast to her placating tone.
“He has the wrong seat,” Eli insisted, arms folded to keep from shoving the man’s hand from his face.
The passengers grumbled, not caring for any of it.
The flight attendant barely skimmed the young couple and focused her attention on the scowling man. “Let me see your ticket, sir.”
“Why do you need to see my ticket? Check theirs—”
“Your ticket, sir?” she held out a hand.
“Let her see it already!” someone called from the back.
The man hesitated before handing it over.
She studied it for only just a moment and shook her head before handing it back. Her icy-blue eyes turned to the couple. “I’m sorry for the convenience.” Then faced their accuser. “You’re in row R, sir. This is row K. Please move forward.” She turned to help a young traveler struggling with her bags.
A few scoffs and grumbles articulated Eli’s disgust as the man awkwardly pushed his luggage forward.
The other travelers barely gave Eli a glance as they continued down the aisle, mumbling on their way.
“Leave it,” Zoey muttered.
“Did you see that? He didn’t like his seat so he wanted to fool us into giving away ours? That’s crazy.”
“Leave it, E…” She ducked her head again as the same flight attendant returned to their side.
“Excuse me,” the woman said quietly, eyes on Eli. “Sorry again for the convenience. We have two seats in first class if you’d like to upgrade—”
“We’re fine,” Zoey answered quickly.
“But it won’t cost you anything.” The attendant’s expression matched Eli’s piteous one. ” And it looks like your boyfriend wouldn’t mind. There’s more room for your legs.”
“I said we’re fine, thank you.”
Eli raised a brow at Zoey. Why turn down free first-class seats?
The attendant shrugged. “Okay, if you insist.” Her gaze swept over Eli and she smiled sympathetically before walking away.
Eli settled in his chair and sighed, silently bidding farewell to a gift he almost had.
“Are you upset?”
“Not really.” He leaned his head back. “Just never flown first-class before. Guess I wouldn’t know whether I’m missing anything or not.”
Zoey scooted close and rested her cheek on his shoulder. “I’ll make it up to you.”
Eli peered down at her pouting face. He smirked, irritation giving way to curiosity. “How?”
“Dunno.” Zoey laughed. “But somehow I will.”
“Not good enough.”
She giggled and leaned in to kiss his cheek. “Better?”
Someone snorted from behind and kneed Zoey’s seat hard. Eli started to turn when she gripped his arm. “Leave it, I know,” sighed Eli and settled back in his seat.
When she cuddled closer, Eli stared at her shadowed reflection on the blank screen before him. “Will you keep the hoodie and glasses on?”
“Kinda hard to watch movies.”
“I’ll figure it out. Maybe I’ll sleep some. Barely did yesterday.”
He nodded; his night was spent alternating between packing and finishing up a project for a client. Two hours was the most sleep he had before heading to the airport with Zoey. “Nervous about going home?”
Zoey was silent for a moment before she nodded. “A little.”
“Don’t worry.” Eli moved a hand over her leg and squeezed gently. “I’m here.”
It was meant to encourage her, his words, but they only unsettled her frazzled nerves more. The disguise was ridiculously uncomfortable but not as uncomfortable as sitting beside Eli, knowing that in less than fourteen hours, he would come to the rude awakening of who she was and there would be no escaping it then.
Yet she waited until they were 11,000 feet off the ground and in route to London before drawing in a breath. “E…”
“Man, I wish we took those seats.” He stretched his legs and peered down at her. “Hmm?”
Zoey drew back her words. Eli reached down and tugged off her sunglasses. “Hmm?”
“Nothing.” Zoey closed her eyes and ignored the nagging in her head. Later, she promised herself, scavenging for what decency she had left.
“By the way, my visa came in quick.”
Zoey’s eyes shot open. Her pulse quickened.
He was smiling. “I thought it would take a few weeks—”
“It doesn’t always take that long,” Zoey answered in hushed tones. “You got lucky.”
“Probably,” he whispered back, grin boyish. “’Cos my visa to Ethiopia took forever to come. My brothers, especially Abe and Bart, kept acting like it wouldn’t. By far the longest month of my life. But the summer made up for it.”
Zoey looked down at her sunshades in his hand. “Do your siblings always give you a hard time?”
“More now than before.” Eli sighed. “It’s annoying but that’s the fate of a last born. I’m used to it.”
“Are you though?”
“Some days it’s just stupid.” He paused briefly. “But nah, don’t think anyone gets used to being harassed.”
Zoey cringed. A few family members were long-time harassers, and even she couldn’t bear their crass humor.
“Hmm, I hate turbulence.”
“Me too.” Eli rested his head against hers. “Y’know, I can’t say yo’ve told me much about your folks.”
Her erratic pulse jumped against her throat.
“Except for their names, you rarely talk about them. Besides Nwando, I guess.” Eli’s cheek brushed against her hoodie. “I know you’re the oldest of two, with a brother… Lawrence?”
“Law,” Zoey corrected gently. “He hates being called Lawrence.”
“Ah right. Good thing you told me.” She could hear the smile in his voice. “How old is he?”
“Okay, almost Isaac’s age. Are they similar?”
Zoey pictured the first son of Abe and Phoebe. “Yeah and no. He’s less of a model son and more of a spoiled brat.”
“Sure, no one can beat Isaac in manners,” Eli chuckled. “And your cousin getting married, what’s her name again?”
“We won’t get to hang out with her. Nigerian weddings can be crazy hectic.”
He snorted. “I can only imagine. My siblings all had unconventional and small weddings. All hands on deck, even with Junior’s in Ethiopia.”
Zoey paused, wondering what his wedding would be like. If he married her, there would be nothing small about it.
“So, go on…”
“What else do you wanna know?”
Eli laughed softly. “You’re being weird again.”
Zoey frowned. “What’s wrong with what I said?”
“Every time I ask about your folks, you get vague. Hiding something, my cryptic beauty?” He nuzzled her cheek.
Zoey’s stomach did a somersault and she leaned away from his touch. “I need to pee.”
Eli’s narrowed stare pierced through her and the minute he loosened his hold, she stood abruptly and climbed over his legs to rush up the aisle for the nearest bathroom.
Zoey took time drying her hands minutes later, reluctant to return to Eli’s side; a first in their one-year relationship. Keeping secrets this big was a first too and she knew he’d react badly to it. Drawing in a breath, she stared at herself in the mirror and released it along with the truth in her head. “I’m not who you think I am, Eli. I’m not a broke international student Zo–”
A sharp rap on the door startled the words from her mouth.
Zoey wiped the moisture from her brow and turned to open the door.
A young woman with bright red lipstick and painted eyes stood in Zoey’s path. She squinted at Zoey for what seemed like a lifetime and then re-directed her gaze. “‘Scuse me.”
Zoey released a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding and started down the aisle back to her seat.
“Wait a minute!”
Cold slithered up her heels and she turned slowly.
The young woman was now grinning, pointing a manicured finger at her. “I think I know you.”
Zoey gripped the hoodie that did nothing to mask her features. “I don’t think so…”
“Yeah!!” The young woman laughed. “I should’ve known when you walked past me the first time.”
Eyes from every side turned to look and Zoey froze like a dried-up specimen under a microscope. “You got the wrong–”
“Paula Ibazi’s cousin right?”
Zoey flinched as the woman closed the distance between them. “You look just like her. Omigosh, yeah! Same face and everything.”
She could’ve argued that the only resemblance was their complexion and eye-shape but that wouldn’t help the matter. She’d been discovered, even with her baggy hoodie. Zoey could feel her heart beating fast as the woman studied her carefully.
“So you’re traveling home for the wedding? Me too! I didn’t know you lived in Houston. Why are you in economy class? That’s crazy.” Her eyes moved past Zoey. “Was that guy your bodyguard or something?”
Zoey scowled as the woman’s raised voice. “Listen, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Hey, you!” the woman called over Zoey’s head, ignoring the travelers gawking at them. “Are you her bodyguard?”
Everything stopped in that moment except Zoey’s racing heartbeat. Her feet stayed rooted, knowing that the minute she turned around, Eli would be standing there with a confused look on his face.
Time started again and Zoey felt a warm hand settle on her shoulder. She turned, and the flight attendant from earlier was beaming warmly at her. Almost fondly. Zoey blinked, glancing around for Eli and the woman who’d ousted her. Only she and the flight attendant stood. Even the passengers were occupied with movies, food and napping. “What?”
“Please take your seat, Miss. You’re blocking the aisle.”
Warmth flooded Zoey’s cheeks but embarrassment was better than what she dreaded. “Sorry,” she mumbled and edged past the flight attendant back to her seat.
Eli focused on the lit screen while munching on the meal before him. He glanced up upon her arrival and arched a brow. “You good?”
Zoey nodded, realizing it was just her crazy imagination. No one recognized her on this flight and her secret was safe. For now. “Yup,” she answered a bit too cheerily and climbed over his legs to settle beside him. “Just fine.” She stole a piece of fruit from his plate and snuggled close to watch the blockbuster movie.
Later… she told herself, wishing time would stand still a little longer.