From the small sliver of window that Kate could see, it looked as if every plane flying across the United States had diverted to Dallas. Beneath slate gray skies, planes of all sizes were lined up on the tarmac, waiting for available gates.
They’d been waiting for two hours. Two excruciatingly long hours in which she’d been squeezed in between a grandma with generous hips and a man with impossibly broad shoulders. With the latter, Kate was engaged in a silent battle for the armrest. Every time she moved, he popped his elbow onto it. Every time he turned around to look for the flight attendant—which was often—she reclaimed it. What was it about men that made them think they had some inalienable right to the armrests?
He sighed again, loudly and with great exasperation, and then kicked his feet around under the seat in front of him like a little boy who had grown frustrated that he could not find a comfortable position.
Kate rolled her eyes, opened her purse, and took out a bag of peanuts.
His attention snapped instantly to her.
She opened the bag, fished out one peanut, and popped it into her mouth.
He was riveted.
Kate ate another peanut and glanced at him from the corner of her eye.
His gaze narrowed; his vivid blue eyes zeroed in on hers, silently challenging. Kate munched her peanuts and considered him. He was cute, she thought. Dark, wavy hair, long enough to tuck behind his ears. Sexy lips. Yep, he was so cute that Kate momentarily forgot he was an armrest hog.
His gaze fell to her bag of peanuts, and then to her purse.
“Would you like some?” Kate asked pleasantly.
He clenched his jaw. He was trying very hard not to want them, she could see that, and she couldn’t help but smile brightly. “I have several bags.”
“Maybe that’s why they ran out of bags for everyone else a half hour ago.”
“Testy,” she said with a shrug and ate another peanut. “My philosophy is, you snooze, you lose. In your case, literally.” She laughed at her own joke, then reached into her purse and rummaged around, finding another bag. She held it up. “Do you want one… Wait, what did you say your name was?”
“I didn’t,” he said tightly.
She wiggled the bag of peanuts.
“Joe,” he said.
“I’m Kate.” She smiled and handed him the bag. “Knock yourself out.”
“Thanks,” he said, and when he lifted his arm to take the bag from her, Kate firmly planted her elbow on the armrest.
He tore the bag open, tipped it upside down, and dumped all the peanuts in his mouth. One would think they’d been on the plane without food for days instead of hours.
He’d just wadded the empty wrapper into a tight little ball when the engines suddenly fired. Cries of relief went up from the cabin as the plane shuddered forward. The captain, Kate noticed, didn’t say anything. He was sick of it, too.
The plane slid up to a gate, and although the flight attendant instructed the passengers to remain seated with their seat belts fastened until the captain had turned off the illuminated sign, no one listened. There was a mad push to get off that plane, a lot of shouting for people to hurry up. Joe popped up from his seat instantly. He was cute and tall, an inch or two over six feet, Kate thought. He was also trim and muscular, and looked as if he did a lot of working out.
He blocked the aisle, gesturing impatiently for Kate and the grandma to get out, too.
“Oh! Thank you,” Kate said gratefully, and hurried forward to rescue her bridesmaid dress, which took some wresting out of the tiny space, much to the annoyance of everyone behind her. Once Kate had freed it, she hoisted the thing on her back and slugged her tote bag over her shoulder. She marched forward, anxious to be as far from that plane as she could get.
Unfortunately, the plane disgorged its passengers into an overcrowded terminal dripping with bad mojo and body odor. In the melee of angry passengers and harried airline personnel shouting at everyone to calm down, Kate lost sight of Joe. She thought she spotted him on the other side of the airline desk helping the grandma into a seat, but the swelling crowd quickly obstructed Kate’s view.
And really, she had other pressing issues on her mind at that moment: a bathroom. She fought her way across the wide corridor from the gate to stand in line at the women’s bathroom with what felt like another person on her back and a bowling ball in her shoulder bag.
Several minutes later, when she emerged once again into the terminal, it seemed, impossibly, as if things were even more chaotic. She was dismayed to see the number of cancellations on the arrivals and departures board. Lisa was going to have a complete meltdown if Kate was delayed. Her cousin was not exactly the most laid-back woman in the world.
The attendant at the airline desk was making an announcement, but Kate couldn’t make out a word she was saying. So she pushed her way through the crowd and found herself next to a very thin, very put-together blonde. The blonde’s fingers were flying across her phone.
“Excuse me,” Kate said. “Sorry to bother you, but did you happen to hear what they said?”
“Yes,” the woman said without looking up. “We are to collect our baggage and they will try and reroute us.” She suddenly looked up. “But don’t get your hopes up. The news is reporting that the air traffic controllers are going on strike at midnight.”
“Wait, what?” Kate exclaimed, completely startled by that news and the fact that a mass of humanity had turned around and was starting to move in one fleshy wall toward the baggage claim.
“You haven’t heard?” Blondie asked. “Big freak blizzard across one half the country, and air traffic controllers are about to strike. We’re screwed.”
“Oh no,” Kate said. “I cannot be screwed. I can’t. I have to be at a wedding!”
“If I were you, I’d see about getting a hotel around here somewhere. I don’t think anyone is going anywhere. Good luck,” she added, and put herself in the people stream to baggage claim.
This could not be happening. Lisa would flip out, and Kate really didn’t want to live the rest of her life and possibly die at DFW airport. She frantically dug in her bag for her phone as she moved with the wall of people toward baggage claim.
At the baggage carousel, Kate was able to prop up her pink garment bag to stand directly beside her so that she could call Lisa. “Hey!” she said brightly when Lisa answered. “How’s the bride?”
“Where are you?” Lisa demanded. “I’ve been trying to get hold of you all day!”
“You have?” Kate asked. “I’m on my way—”
“Oh God, that’s right,” Lisa sighed. “I forgot you were flying in today. I just really need to talk to you,” she said. “I don’t… something is going on.”
Lisa clearly had not heard about the storm or the impending strike, Kate thought, which was good. But she didn’t need any additional drama right now. “What’s up?” she asked reluctantly.
“I don’t know if I want to do this,” Lisa said. “Is that awful?”
“Do what?” Kate asked, and was knocked from the back as an impatient man went barreling past her. She managed to catch herself and her dress.
“Get married,” Lisa said impatiently. “I mean, I love him, at least I think I do, but honestly, sometimes I wonder if I really, truly know what love is, Kate! What if there is someone else out there who is a better match? How do I know for certain that Kiefer is the one?”
Lord. Kate was not alarmed; she was annoyed. Lisa had always been like this, always creating drama, always second-guessing everything about her life. Kate’s aunt—Lisa’s mom—said she was a dreamer. Kate’s mom said Lisa was a little wishy-washy. Kate thought Lisa was just straight-up nuts most of the time, with a little deranged thrown in to make things interesting. “Are you kidding, Lisa? Your wedding is in two days. Two days!”
“I know, I know,” Lisa moaned. “But we had this discussion last night—well, more of a fight, really. Anyway, he said there were certain things I ought to understand by now, and I said, sometimes I think I understand too much, and he said, what’s that supposed to mean—”
The baggage carousel suddenly cranked to life, drowning out Lisa’s recounting of the fight.
“Okay, listen,” Kate said. “You have to take a breath. I’ll be there soon, okay? You’re just having bridal jitters, that’s all. Everyone gets them. But Lisa, do not flip out. Do you understand? Don’t flip out! Don’t do anything stupid until I get there.”
“Okay,” Lisa said, but she didn’t sound particularly on board with that plan.
“Is that a promise?”
“Okay, well look, I’ll call you in a few hours. Right now, I have to go. I have to… change planes,” Kate said quickly.
“Call me as soon as you can,” Lisa demanded.
She would call her all right, Kate thought. If she lugged this damn Scarlett O’Hara dress across a freak snowstorm and an air traffic controller strike for nothing, she could not be held responsible for what she would do to her most beloved cousin and best friend.
She spotted her suitcase coming around. Naturally, it was on top of other bags. She pushed her way into the rail, then muscled her heavy bag off the merry-go-round. She knew she shouldn’t have brought so many shoes.
With her belongings all around her now, and the dress propped up beside her, Kate pondered what she should do next.
“What is that, anyway, your own personal flotation device?” a male voice asked.
Kate had to lean forward and around her garment bag to see her ex-seatmate. Joe looked completely unruffled by all the airport drama. At his foot was a gray suitcase, only half the size of hers. “One can never be too prepared, I always say,” Kate said. “Where’s yours?”
He actually smiled at that. “If I am going to be some place that requires a personal flotation device, I don’t think my flotation device is going to make much of a difference.”
Kate smiled. “You make a good argument. So did you hear? Air traffic controller strike is coming.”
“I heard,” he said. “So maybe you do have the right idea,” he said, looking at her garment bag. “Because if that happens, the only way out of Dallas might be via raft.”
“Hey!” a woman said behind her.
Kate turned around to see Blondie standing next to her, still furiously typing away on her phone, two bags stacked neatly beside her. “So some people are trying to get to Austin or Houston from here to see if they can get out. They’re further south and can route around the storm through Phoenix or someplace like that.”
“Oh,” Kate said. She was aware that Joe had suddenly moved closer, was standing at her back, listening. “How are they getting there?”
“Rental cars,” Blondie said, and looked up. “Just down that hall.”
“Thank you,” Kate said. “Did you get one?”
“Not me. I am checking into the Gaylord and getting a massage. You should really do the same.”
“I’ll think about it,” Kate said. She did not relish the thought of driving to Austin or Houston, not without at least seeing what the airline came up with. But neither did she like the idea of leaving the airport to check into a hotel. She turned around to speak to Joe, but he was gone—she spotted him striding in the direction of the rental car agencies. Apparently he thought that was the only way out of here, and the fact that he did made an impression on Kate. Maybe he knew something she didn’t know.
She gathered up her mélange of luggage and hurried after him.
Joe was in the Dollar Rent A Car line, so Kate went to the Budget line, determined to get a car before he did. But as she waited, she noticed that voices were getting louder and louder at her counter. People in front of her were sighing loudly and with frustration, muttering under their breath.
She checked Joe’s position at Dollar and was startled to see him looking at her. She quickly looked away. The couple in front of her suddenly whirled about with stormy expressions. “Is something wrong?” Kate asked.
“They don’t have any cars!” the woman said angrily. “I cannot believe they don’t have any cars! They are a car rental company,” she said emphatically.
“No one has any cars,” said a man behind Kate. “They’ve all been grabbed.”
“Then why don’t they bring them from other places?” the woman demanded, as if it were perfectly reasonable to expect that the car rental agency could have anticipated this disaster.
Kate began to gather her things. It was back to the airline, she guessed. “I heard that Hertz had a few cars,” the man behind her said. That brought Kate’s head up. She whipped around to look at the Hertz counter, and when she did, she noticed Joe was looking at her again. His gaze followed hers to the Hertz counter. And then he looked at her again.
Kate suddenly lurched in the direction of Hertz, dragging her garment bag and kicking her tote bag in front of her until she could dip down and pick it up as she sprinted across the tile floor. By the time she had picked it up, however, Joe had made an acrobatic leap over the blue rope of Dollar Rent A Car and was sprinting ahead of her in the direction of Hertz.
Kate angrily used her garment bag as a blocker and actually rushed through a couple deep in conversation to shorten the distance she had to cover to beat Joe. But she was weighed down with her things, and he obviously possessed some freakish natural athletic talent, because he didn’t even look winded as he sailed to a spot in line in front of her. He turned around and smiled at her. “Sorry, but I have to get to Seattle.”
“So do I!” she said sternly. “I have to get to a wedding!”
“And I have to get to the opportunity of a lifetime. It’s every man for himself.”
“That is not fair!” Kate cried.
“Who said natural disasters were fair?” He smiled at her.
“Do not smile at me,” she said angrily. “Do. Not. Smile.”
But he did smile. He smiled with twinkly blue eyes as if she amused him, as if they were standing at some bar in the middle of happy hour instead of a crowded airport in the middle of a natural disaster.
And then the Armrest Hog got the last rental car at DFW.